LaGuardia Airport re-imagined: Will improvements make it ‘World Class’?

By Alfonso A. Castillo alfonso.castillo@newsday.com

Flying in and out of LaGuardia Airport can be maddening for New York passengers — from the moment they pull off the Grand Central Parkway until they take off, or when they touch down on the runway on an inbound flight.

Passengers have had to deal with tangled, clogged roadways leading to and from the airport in northern Queens as well as cramped taxiways and antiquated terminals, all adding up to potential delays. But for the past five years, work has been underway to transform the airport from “Third World” — as it’s infamously been dubbed — to what project officials say will be “World Class.”

The $8 billion effort includes a streamlined road network, new terminals with modern amenities, plentiful dining and shopping options, and extra space for planes to stay out of each others’ way.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the air travel industry, the two main builders — LaGuardia Gateway Partners and Delta — have made significant progress, unveiling what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called the airport’s biggest milestone to date, a new Arrivals and Departures Hall at Terminal B.

The project, largely funded by private dollars, is expected to be completed by 2025, and most of the improvements noticeable to customers will be done by 2022. Despite a wish list of upgrades at the 80-year-old airport, serious concerns remain — such as the overhaul’s failure to address constrained runways and the practicality of a rail link anticipated to cost another $2.5 billion. The proposed LaGuardia AirTrain is also threatened by a projected $3 billion in pandemic-related revenue losses, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport.

Here’s a look at some of LaGuardia’s long-standing problems, how the project aims to address them, and some issues that could arise.

ALTHOUGH LAGUARDIA CARRIES fewer passengers than 20 other major U.S. airports, it typically ranks among the top three for flight delays. One key reason for the tardy takeoffs: a tight taxiway that results in congestion. The cramped quarters are reflective of the airport’s antiquated design. When it opened in 1964, the airport’s central terminal was designed to handle about 8 million people annually. These days, about 30 million people fly in or out of LaGuardia in a typical year.

The solution: Create more space for planes

In addition to consolidating the hodgepodge of buildings at LaGuardia into one streamlined and unified structure, the redevelopment project shifts the airport’s footprint 600 feet closer to the Grand Central Parkway — freeing up two more miles of taxiway and creating new lanes for planes to park without blocking other aircraft. New elevated walkways, leading from terminals’ central ticketing and security and baggage claim areas to gates, will be high enough for planes to taxi underneath.

When you’ll see it

The first several gates in the rebuilt Terminals B and C opened in December 2018 and October 2019, respectively. Other new structures have gradually come on line since — the largest of which was a new Arrival and Departures Hall referred to as the Terminal B “headhouse.” The new Terminal B complex is expected to be completed by 2022, and the new Terminal C by 2025. But all the additional taxiway space won’t become available until the old terminals and other structures are demolished.

BUILDING AN ENTIRELY new LaGuardia while the original airport continues operating has at times caused considerable pain for travelers within and near the airport, heaping on construction-related traffic and road closures — especially before airline travel was reduced by the pandemic. Relocating the terminals meant building over a lot of former parking spaces. The closure of the main parking garage in 2016 eliminated 2,000 parking spots and forced drivers to temporarily take shuttle buses to get to a makeshift lot to the west. In February 2018, a new seven-floor, 3,100-space parking garage opened, connecting to the new Terminal B.

LAGUARDIA’S CAPACITY PROBLEMS have been apparent even before travelers got out of their cars. Traffic jams originating in the complicated roadway network surrounding the airport often stretched for miles into the Grand Central Parkway and other roadways. And travelers preferring to avoid roads altogether have no other options, because LaGuardia remains the only major airport on the East Coast without a direct rail link.

The solution: Untangling roadways, creating transportation alternatives

A major component of the redevelopment effort is a transformation of the roadway system, creating nine miles of streamlined roads. That includes 26 new bridges to replace 15 old ones. Officials said the configuration will reduce traffic lights in the airport from 19 to three. Also planned is a new 1.5-mile “AirTrain” rail system that will link the airport to the Mets-Willets Point LIRR station and the 7 subway line in Corona, Queens.

When you’ll see it

Some roadway improvements have come on line, including a flyover that opened in July 2018, extending from Exit 7 of the Grand Central to the airport’s eastern terminals. Project officials said more than 75% of the new roadways were completed by this summer. Project officials hope to break ground on the AirTrain next year, and to have it close to finished by 2024.

New roads are under construction at LaGuardia Airport
New roads are under construction at LaGuardia Airport
New roads in Laguardia airport in Queens are

Until then: Road closures, shuttles to taxis

The ongoing roadwork has, at times, caused massive congestion. Project officials say the worst of the traffic jams have subsided, but some temporary detours remain near the eastern terminals. Until the pandemic struck, and travel volume fell, taxi pickup and drop-off zone had been moved farther from the terminal, requiring a shuttle bus ride to access it.

The Hitch: AirTrain controversy

THE PROPOSED AIRTRAIN has encountered major resistance from Queens residents, elected officials and transportation advocates, who have questioned the train’s route and rationale. The Port Washington line to which the AirTrain would connect runs trains twice an hour during most times, and is the only LIRR line that does not connect to the railroad’s biggest transfer point, Jamaica Station. Travelers heading to Manhattan would have to go east to return west. Those headed to most Long Island stations would have to go east to return west to Woodside, and then double back eastward. The AirTrain extension has soared in cost from $500 million to $2.5 billion.

What they’re saying

Rebecca Pryor, a member of the Sensible Way to LGA Coalition, said the proposed AirTrain “doesn’t make sense” for various reasons, including the potential to overdevelop and pollute Flushing Bay. “It’s not integrated into the existing transportation network. It doesn’t add any public transit for anyone in the neighborhood. And it goes past the airport, to then turn around and go back to the airport,” said Pryor, program coordinator for Guardians of Flushing Bay, an advocacy group. “For us, those are red flags.”

DESPITE OPERATING ON 680 acres, LaGuardia regularly handles roughly the same amount of domestic passengers as sister airport Kennedy Airport, about seven times larger. Passengers arrive and depart at antiquated terminals, ranging from about 40 to 60 years old. Since they predate the push for heightened security that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, much of the concessions are located before the security gates — out of reach for passengers waiting inside terminals.

CONSTRUCTION IS UNDERWAY on two terminals — priced at about $4 billion each — that will offer a total of 2.3 million square feet of space with six new concourses connecting to 72 new gates. The terminals will offer scenic views of Flushing Bay, 55-foot-high ceilings, and state-of-the art amenities and comforts, such as new lounges, art installations, airport-themed children’s play areas, charging stations near seating areas, nursing rooms for mothers, and spacious new bathrooms — even some exclusively for pets and featuring artificial grass and mock fire hydrants. Passengers will be able to dine at a range of New York-inspired bars and restaurants, some locally owned, and shop at businesses like FAO Schwarz. New security features at the Terminal B “headhouse” aim to simplify travel, featuring three times as many security lanes and advanced screening technology that uses artificial intelligence and robots.

When you’ll see it:

A new 243,000-square-foot concourse at Terminal B opened in December 2018 with 18 gates and new shopping and dining options. In October 2019, Delta opened the first concourse and first seven gates of its new Terminal C, which will combine the existing Terminals C and D. In June, the project reached what officials called its biggest milestone to date with the opening of a new 850,000-square-foot, four-story Arrivals and Departures Hall at Terminal B with ticketing and check-in areas, security and baggage claims. Another seven new gates at Terminal B opened weeks later, and another concourse is slated to be inaugurated later this year. A new headhouse at Delta’s terminal C is expected to open in 2022, along with three additional concourses.

Until then: Construction inconveniences, old terminals

Much of the work is happening out of view from passengers, but there are areas where construction is going on behind curtains, making for some noise and disruption. While two concourses are open for business, two out of three LaGuardia travelers have no other option than the older terminals that remain cramped and outdated. Even once all the terminals are open, developers will complete extensive demolition work to knock down the old terminal buildings and connecting roadways.

2020-09-16T17:11:53-04:00

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