The Price to Renovate New York JFK is Up to $13 Billion — And Will Make Travel Worse

Three years ago New York announced redevelopment plans for LaGuardia airport. Getting in and out of LaGuardia has been miserable ever since, and at the end of the process there won’t be more runways, there won’t be more airspace capacity, and there won’t be much better transit to and from the airport.

A year and a half ago plans to redevelop New York JFK were introduced and expected to cost $10 billion. That’s already up to $13 billion. We get better road traffic patterns (in some measure reverting to how traffic used to circulate around the airport) but we don’t get… more runways, more airspace capacity, or better transit to and from the airport.

New York airport projects are so slow that it takes more than seven years to install runway lights after the funding has already been allocated. All of this attention from top officials is doing a better job driving projects forward but in my view they’re the wrong projects.

To be sure JFK is a decrepit physical plant. Here’s a geyser spurting at baggage claim at New York JFK’s terminal 8. Of course that’s home to American Airlines, one of the newer terminals, and one not slated to be redeveloped in the governor’s $13 billion plan.

Unquestionably new terminals will be nicer and more aesthetically pleasing than what we have today, though they won’t do much to improve the actual travel experience — getting to, in and out of the airport quickly. Things like first-class shopping, dining, and business amenities aren’t actually about the passenger experience.

Instead we’re going to get lots of high end retail because passengers are the product not the customers. In order to fund projects what airport authorities are doing is getting the private sector to front much of the bill, and in exchange those investors get the future revenue stream. Public-private partnerships aren’t free. They give up (a larger amount of) future income in exchange for current funding. That’s probably a good idea, but it’s largely a one-time bet you can make, so you need to use the cash realized from the transaction wisely.

Retail is how investors make their money back, selling to passengers. It’s why airports like Dallas Fort-Worth and Chicago O’Hare remove convenient moving walkways, so passengers are more likely to stop into shops along their way.

We need runways, we need more efficient air traffic control that allows more planes to traverse congested airspace especially in the Northeast. Demand-based pricing for takeoffs and landings might be an improvement here to. An airport’s capacity matching demand is the first consideration. And then,

  • Airports need to be easy to get to.
  • They should have security near the entrance [including for better security, as the Brussels and Istanbul airport bombings show the area outside security is a target and you want to get people through security as quickly as possible].
  • Gates should be as close as possible or as quick to reach as possible

We’d be much better off with airports that efficiently moved people from their initial location to their gate, and on arrival to their final destination, than with sprawling complexes that are cumbersome to traverse but accommodate more retail. Airport restaurants are generally bad anyway.

You can only sell off the airport’s future income stream once. Investing the money is new mega-terminals means not investing the money in things that would actually improve the airport most. As a result these choices mean the New York JFK travel experience will be worse than it otherwise could be.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Have avoided JFK and EWR for years and will continue to do so in the future. I’ll take the inconvenience of using other gateways…..and never look back.

  2. We also need playgrounds and spaces for children – does any US airport even have the amenities we see for kids in HKG and SIN?

    100% correct that passengers are the product – if only US entitlement spending didn’t sap infrastructure spending.

  3. Crony capitalism. Politically connected people get lucrative contracts at JFK. Right now, I am kind of thinking that the politicians are working on the 100+ year plan to fix the airports at a cost of $100 billion all in, maybe more. LOL. I sound like Howard Miller on this one.

  4. We need mass transit from NYC to places like ISP, HPN and EWR, where anyone in metro NYC should be able to get to any NY airport in less than a half hour. But that involves a large investment in infrastructure, and that’s just not something any government wants to do, because payback is too far out to effect their reelection.

  5. Airports around the country are starting to show their age, SEATAC is a disaster and I think on par with New York Airports in the worst possible renovation execution. And it’s going to be worst before it’s better.

    I too avoid the three major NYC airports like the plague. Especially flying international braving BOS and IAD.

    Yes there is a huge cronyism factor in those contracts and one thought the “big dig” had overruns

  6. Well said. Very sad, though. Chicago seems to have done well with the O’Hare revamp. Maybe taking notes from this successful example might help.

  7. I fly through JFK several times a year. By no means is it a great airport but, once I’m actually there, it’s a perfectly acceptable airport. JFK’s biggest problem is accessibility: getting there reliably and cost-efficiently. The terminal space — at least the terminal space used by the vast majority of JFK passengers — is OK now. It doesn’t feel massively overcrowded or anything. It’s been years since I’ve been at JFK and said “wow, this airport is really a dump.” Frankly, I wouldn’t spend another nickel on the facility until the accessibility issues are addressed (which might also benefit New Yorkers in their daily lives away from the airport). That said, as you’ve implied, there’s no way to monetize transportation infrastructure, so that’s not a government priority.

  8. Living in Albany, the capital pf New York, you think it would be easy to connect to JFK. Sadly, its a third world experience in frustration. No direct connecting flights from ALB to JFK, and the ground transportation is a expensive, time consuming nightmare.

  9. @ray it’s not a free market – it’s crony capitalism. The PANYNJ control everything

  10. I have better experience traveling into and out of major airports in third world countries, and don’t get me started how wonderful it is to land in airports in Europe and Asia and jumping on a train into the city. The current transportation options via train into JFK are painful… transferring at Jamaica in the hot summer months or in the dead of winter can be hell.

    NYC claims to be the capital of the world and the heart and soul of America… Your first impression on arriving should be amazing… not such a painful experience.

  11. The Port had an off shore island addition to JFK in its 20 year plan for many years. The cost was then $5B order of magnitude estimate. It would of course be more now. It included an extension of the air train to an airside terminal and truck access via a tunnel/bridge combination. Minimum of two additional 3 mile runways parallel to the bay runway. Do not know if it is in 20 year plan still.

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