Ask the pilot

JetBlue is touting its fancy new terminal, but it just makes me wonder: Why can't Americans build better airports?


Patrick Smith
February 6, 2009 4:37PM (UTC)

It's easy to like JetBlue Airways. We dig its youthful verve, its customer-friendly business model, its extra legroom and its odd knack for turning lousy luck into good publicity. (Who can forget the 2005 emergency landing of a JetBlue Airbus in California, a minor mishap that propelled Capt. Scott Burke to the status of national hero?) JetBlue finished first, some of you might recall, in this column's best U.S. airline poll in 2004.

On the other hand, if you ask me, its onboard product is overrated, its advertising campaigns are annoying (the ongoing "Jetters" ads are both grating and bizarre), and its planes have helped turn John F. Kennedy Airport into a nightmare of congestion. JetBlue operates only smaller jets -- Airbus A320s and Embraer E190s -- in a low-capacity, high-frequency combination that is a serious burden at Kennedy, where traffic is dominated by wide-bodied, long-haul flights. JFK is quiet during the morning and midday, then becomes intensely busy in the afternoon and evening, when the majority of international flights arrive and depart. When it first started out, JetBlue concentrated operations during off-peak hours; it now has dozens of flights fat in the middle of the evening push. Other major carriers are guilty as well, saturating the airport with regional jets, but JetBlue, which didn't exist until 1999, has more flights into and out of Kennedy than anyone else.

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And I have to say, I'm disappointed by JetBlue's new JFK home, the much ballyhooed Terminal 5 -- or "T5," as the company calls it. The $743 million, 72-acre structure replaces the airline's previous home in Terminal 6 -- the former National Airlines and TWA facility. The opening of T5 has been the subject of much promotion and fanfare -- JetBlue has even painted five Airbus jets in a special T5 livery -- conspiring to make the place sound like the next great leap in commercial aviation. Which, at least in my opinion, based on a couple of recent visits, it is not.

The exterior, for one, is nothing if not dull. The streetside façade is at worst cheerless; on the tarmac side, those in arriving jets can savor the hideous, warehouse-like expanse of the main pier.

The central ticketing lobby -- described in a press release as "lofty" and "light-filled" -- is an attractive, crescent-shaped edifice, but too low-slung for any real grandeur. The rest of the interior looks, feels, sounds and smells like a shopping mall. For years the distinction between airport and mall has been steadily blurring, and now JetBlue has pretty much closed the gap. "T5 was designed to put people first," says an in-flight brochure. I would modify that slightly. T5 is designed to put retailers first. The concourses are lined with shops, and the atrium food court is indistinguishable from what you'd see in countless American suburbs.

"Terminal materials were selected for endurance and a minimalist aesthetic," says JetBlue. If by "minimalist aesthetic" you mean not enough room, then sure. The place is brand-new, but the airline already seems to have outgrown it. The corridors are crowded and the boarding lounges jampacked. And may I ask: Why do American airports insist on flavoring their decor with wall-to-wall carpeting? Its sound absorption qualities are nil (see below), and it rapidly becomes threadbare and dirty. Not to mention, industrial-grade rugs are ecologically toxic.

T5 is also one the noisier terminals around. Behind the cacophony of voices and shrieking babies is a sound system that blares music throughout the entire building. Multiple public address announcements play simultaneously, and as always there's the inane chatter of gate-side TV screens. All of it, at once, echoed to nerve-jangling intensity by the too-low ceilings and too-small confines of the boarding lounges. (On my first visit, just after Christmas, the strains of "Silent Night" could be heard amid the din, emanating from unseen speakers in a literally painful irony.) And because JetBlue's low fares and Sun Belt routes make it a popular airline for families, the noise problem is amplified by the number of infants and toddlers.

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JetBlue boasts of 15 security lanes (to be increased to 20), exactly two of which were open on the night of my first visit, with queue times exceeding 20 minutes. My second time through, on a busy weekday morning, five of the 15 were open, and the lines even longer. This is possibly a Transportation Security Administration issue, but for as long as airlines continue acquiescing to TSA's ludicrous protocols, they share responsibility for the hassle.

"Easy and direct access to public transportation," is another boast. Direct, yes, but the hike from baggage claim to JFK's inter-terminal AirTrain takes a solid 10 minutes. Gate to gate, an AirTrain journey from T5 to, say, Terminal 1 can take nearly as long as a taxi ride to LaGuardia Airport, clear across Queens.

Now, with all of that out of the way, I should note that T5 has at least two things going for it. The first is free, terminal-wide Wi-Fi. The value of this, for those with a laptop and some time to kill, cannot be overstated, and JetBlue's competitors could do a lot worse than offer the same. The laptop workstations are also a nice touch.

Second is T5's incorporation of Eero Saarinen's famous TWA terminal, currently in the final stages of renovation. Unused for several years, it will soon serve as a ticketing plaza and will be one of T5's three designated entry points.

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The building opened in 1962 as the first major terminal in the world built expressly for jet airliners. Regarded as a modernist masterpiece, it's the perfect backdrop for revisiting a little jet-age enchantment. Saarinen, a Finn whose other projects included the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the sweepingly beautiful main terminal at Washington-Dulles, described his TWA terminal as "all one thing." The lobby is a fluid, unified sculpture of a space, at once futuristic and organic. It's a kind of Gaudí inversion, a carved-out atrium reminiscent of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia, overhung by a pair of cantilevered ceilings that rise from a central spine like huge wings.

When the space was left vacant following the demise of TWA, few were optimistic about its survival. The demolition men were readying their wrecking balls when an agreement was finally worked out between JetBlue, the Port Authority of New York, and the city's Municipal Arts Society. I hope, when it reopens, that people will take the time to pass through. Unfortunately, it will be cut off from the bulk of T5, connected only by a pair of elliptical passageways. People arriving via AirTrain, and most of those arriving by car, will bypass it altogether.

(In any case, would they care? On the AirTrain moving walkway I spoke to a JetBlue pilot. I asked what he knew of the TWA building's current status. He gave me a confused, vaguely angry look, as if I'd asked him the stupidest question in the world. "I don't know, dude. Don't know nothin' about it." He was a young guy, and I'm not convinced he knew what building I was talking about, or had even heard of the place, visible through the walkway's east windows. I motioned toward it and made a comment about the building's notoriety. He shrugged. "I'm not here to go sightseeing. I just come to work.")

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JetBlue's most recent home, Terminal 6, is another noteworthy structure, glamorous in its day. Terminal 6 was designed by I.M. Pei. For decades there were Saarinen and Pei, right next to each other. Today we see their projects, icons of a vanished age, elbowed apart by the uninspired girth of T5.

I don't know. Am I being too harsh? Admittedly there are far worse places in this country in which to board an airplane than T5. But I was hoping for something more exciting. And on the heels of my recent visits to the spectacular airports in Seoul, South Korea, and Bangkok, it's easy, maybe, to have too-high expectations.

Ultimately, this isn't an indictment of JetBlue so much as frustration over the fact that, with very few exceptions, Americans haven't figured out how to build a proper terminal. We fail at aesthetics, we fail at amenities, and we fail at the relatively simple task of moving people efficiently from A to B. The newest terminals across Europe and Asia are attractive, spacious, quiet and efficient, abounding with passenger-friendly touches. Ours, by comparison, often seem engineered for inconvenience and stress. In Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, passengers step from commuter trains directly into the check-in hall. At Kennedy, getting to or from Manhattan, or just getting from one (brand-new) terminal to another, is like mounting an expedition.

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And while the mallification of terminals isn't entirely a bad thing, particularly in an environment where the main objective is killing time, doesn't an airport owe us some acknowledgment of its core mission? Should there not be some architectural evocation of the journey? No matter its discomforts, air travel remains, in essence, an impressive and exciting thing, and it's depressing to watch every last facet of the experience become so homogenized.

Next time: Let's hear it: What's your choice for America's worst airport terminal? Plus, 10 things no terminal should be without. Submit your suggestions to the author at PatrickSmith@AskthePilot.com

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Contact Patrick Smith through his Web site and look for answers in a future column.

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Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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