MIAMI — LaGuardia Airport, nestled between the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay in northwest Queens, is the subject of a love-hate relationship with New Yorkers. While people love LaGuardia’s proximity to Manhattan and the dense populations of Queens and Brooklyn, they hate the airports extremely outdated and cramped terminals, frequent delays, and lack of accessibility. There is no doubt that LaGuardia has fallen (far) behind the times, but improvements are coming, and some are already here.
Like much of New York City’s infrastructure, LaGuardia is simply old and in need of a major overhaul. Construction on the airport began in 1937 and it opened for operations in 1939, a time when a Douglas DC-3 would have been a luxurious aircraft to fly out on. In fact, LaGuardia was quite a luxurious airport overall in its early days. Airlines flocked to the new airport in Queens when it first opened. The airport was home to the very first American Airlines Admirals Club, which turns out to also be the first private airline lounge in the world.
These days, the words “luxurious” and “LaGuardia” do not often find themselves in the same sentence. Thankfully, there are a number of major projects going on right now and in the near future that aim to revive some of LaGuardia’s past glory.
A New Central Terminal
Most airlines call terminal B, or “Central Terminal,” their home at LaGaurdia. The 40-gate terminal opened for business in 1964, and received major renovations in 1990s and early 2000s. Despite the renovations, terminal B is vastly overcrowded inside, and capacity constrained air-side. Due to its pre-9/11 design, most amenities such as the food court and shops are located before security, and security checkpoints are undersized for modern requirements.
Thankfully, the central terminal is not long for this word, and its successor is currently being planned. Replacing a major terminal at a small airport without disrupting operations, however, is a massive undertaking. Earlier this year, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey selected four potential groups to bit for the $2.5 billion (plus $1.1 billion in infrastructure) project to replace the central terminal.
The major overhaul involves tearing down the old parking garage in front of the terminal, and replacing it with a 1,100 space garage just to the east. Removing the old garage will make way for the new terminal, allowing it to expand into previously unavailable territory. Hangar 1 will also be demolished. While a final design has not been released, the new terminal should have 35 gates. However, at 1.3 million square feet, the terminal will be nearly 40% larger than the building it replaces. The new terminal will be much more able to meet the expectations of modern passengers, such as high end restaurants, shopping, larger airline lounges, and expanded gate areas. A larger terminal also means more room for airside movements and parking, which should help reduce delays a bit. A private partner to build and operate the new central terminal will be selected in mid-2014, and construction will begin later that year. During construction, temporary facilities will be built, but to what degree is not yet known.
Along with the new terminal are a slew of infrastructure upgrades which are long overdue. Roadway improvements are already under way, which should untangle the mess of inadequate roads leading into the airport. Although unlikely, the Port Authority has even drawn up plans and left the right of way in tact for a future rail link to LaGuardia. Sadly, no such plans are being considered by the city to add train service anytime soon. The entire terminal project should be completed by 2021.
Dressing Up Terminals C & D
Terminals C and D, opened in 1992 and 1983, respectively, will be spared the wrecking ball for now, and are actually impressing passengers after a bit of a minor redevelopment. Terminals C and D are occupied almost entirely by Delta, with a few gates being used by US Air and Westjet.
In partnership with OTG, Delta has transformed terminal D into a high tech, feature packed building better suited to meet the needs of today’s passengers. Burger King has been replaced by Custom Burgers by Pat La Frieda and Prime Tavern. A full blown food court and sushi bar with excellent and healthy choices now greets passengers after security.
700 iPads are littered throughout the terminal, attached to tables, chairs, and desks. These iPads allow passengers to order food and other items on high resolution graphical menus, with delivery to wherever they are sitting. The iPads also allow free access to the full internet, and can be set to provide instant flight updates. These upgrades are a huge hit with passengers. Similar upgrades to terminal C are ongoing, but since terminals C and D are connected airside, passengers are free to roam between them.
Runway Safety Extensions
LaGuardia has some of the shortest runways of any major airport in the country, runways that leave little room for error. While extending the runways is unlikely, the next best thing is already under way. LaGuardia was built long before any runway overrun safety areas were mandated, but the Port Authority is making some changes to ensure an aircraft doesn’t roll into the bay.
Dubbed “The LaGuardia Airport Runway Safety Area Enhancements project,” two runway decks will be extended a total of 180 feet in order to add what is known as Engineered Material Arrestor Systems, or EMAS. Pile-supported concrete deck extensions 500 feet wide will be constructed at the ends of runway 31 and 4, and EMAS installed. EMAS is already installed at the end of runway 22
EMAS, essentially, stops an aircraft in an emergency situation after it overruns the end of the runway. Made of lightweight blocks of concrete, EMAS crushes under the weight of an aircraft, quickly stopping it with minimal damage as a result. Construction is slated to wrap up in the 4th quarter of 2015.
During Hurricane Sandy, the New York area airports took a catastrophic hit. At LaGuardia, the runways and ramp looked more like an extension of Flushing Bay rather than a major metropolitan airport. Pumps designed to keep the airport dry had to be shut down due to the rising water, and the airport was closed for three full days following the storm.
Climate change has become a major concern in the aviation industry, and the Port Authority will soon be taking steps to attempt to protect its airport from becoming “Lake LaGuardia” once again. The $37.5 million project will add flood barriers around lighting systems, concrete flood walls around electrical substations and pump houses to prevent a loss of electrical power, new gravity drainage networks, larger backup generators to reduce reliance on external power, and updates to the airports existing power distribution grid.
Thankfully, New York was spared any major storm in 2013, and these improvements should be ready for the next hurricane season. Some of these projects are already underway, while the rest are anticipated to wrap up within a year.
Within a decade, the LaGuardia Airport we all know and love to hate today should look dramatically different. The new central terminal building and runway safety extensions will be a welcome sight to passengers and airlines alike, while Delta has added a few more years of life to their terminals.