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How to Make an Airport Joe Biden Will Love: The Lessons of LaGuardia’s Makeover

The Daily Beast

July 29, 2015

There is very little on Brian Sills’s “pros” list for New York’s LaGuardia airport. Sills is an actor who lives in Astoria, Queens, so the airport’s proximity to his apartment is the big plus: He can get there in 10 minutes. “And that ends my ‘LGA pros’ list,” he told The Daily Beast.

“One must always brace oneself for LaGuardia and whenever possible, arrive as late as you can to avoid having to be there longer than you must,” said Sills. “It feels more like the Port Authority Bus Terminal than an airport.”

Sills, along with roughly 27 million travelers who annually endure LaGuardia at its most cramped and chaotic, will have welcomed Governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that LaGuardia would be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of $4 billion.

The renderings of the project, released via Cuomo’s Flickr, reveal a sexy, sleek building built along the curve of the Grand Central Parkway, with terminals attached to its long structure like tentacles or claws, and planes—like little fishes—gathered around each.

Notional daytime images show that it will be quite the place for plane-watchers, with a ferry service and surrounding boardwalks. An image of the inside of one of the terminals shows an airy space with soaring glass ceilings.

Vice President Joe Biden, who last year said visitors landing at LaGuardia would have thought they were alighting in the “Third World,” was present for Cuomo’s announcement.

“LaGuardia and JFK are economic anchors for this city and they deserve to be the best in the world,” Biden said.

The new LaGuardia will include a 1.3 million-square-foot, 35-gate terminal building, a new aeronautical ramp, and frontage roads that will serve the new terminal.

Cuomo said the majority of the first half of the project is expected to open to passengers in 2019, with full completion scheduled for approximately 18 months later. The consortium LaGuardia Gateway Partners will oversee the project.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates LaGuardia, and a spokesman for the consortium did not return enquiries about who would be the architects for the project or if there would be different architects for different aspects of it.

“I love that Biden compared it to landing in the ‘Third World,’” said Sills. “It was hilarious and totally true, and about time someone with some authority said it. And perhaps it was that comment that got the ball rolling. Thanks, Joe! It’s incredibly cramped, rather dingy, the terminals are very small, and because it is a New York airport, it has a lot of traffic and gets very crowded very quickly. There is just nowhere to go.

“When I flew to Cleveland this last spring, the line to board my flight actually intersected with another line for another flight. It was chaos! Boarding any flight at LGA is nuts because there isn’t any room to line up anywhere. Everyone just sort of shoves their way toward the gate.”

In a series of tweets, Cuomo called the existing airport “slow, outdated, and a terrible entranceway” to New York. A ferry and rail service will link the new LaGuardia to transport links to the city, he added.

LaGuardia’s major design problem is spatial: It is restricted from growing because it lies between the Grand Central Parkway on one side and Flushing Bay on the other. The airport is notorious for its delays, and in 2012 it was voted America’s worst airport by Travel & Leisure.

The magazine’s damning judgment read: “Dilapidated La Guardia hasn’t aged well. The airport has the dubious honor of ranking the worst for the check-in and security process, the worst for baggage handling, the worst when it comes to providing Wi-Fi, the worst at staff communication, and the worst design and cleanliness. If there was a ray of hope, its location, which ranked 16th, was considered superior to six other airports.”

Angela Gittens, director general of Airports Council International, told The Daily Beast that one of the challenges facing LaGuardia will be how to maintain a full service while the airport is being demolished and rebuilt.

“They just don’t have the space, and the more you try to keep traffic at its current capacity, the more expensive it is,” said Gittens. “You can’t shut down. You can’t suddenly transfer those 27 million passengers to the area’s other airports.”

Gittens is one of the airport’s more vociferous defenders: She points out that it was built at a time—it opened as a commercial airport in 1939—when our contemporary notion of mass air travel wasn’t even fledgling.

“Considering that it’s two generations behind—it’s not even fitted out for a pre-9/11 level of security—it does a good job,” Gittens said. “It’s the closest airport to Manhattan and is still the pick for the domestic business traveler. Even if the traffic’s bad, it’s still only 20 minutes from the city.”

Another big plus is LGA’s courteous staff, Gittens said. Their positive attitude perhaps implicitly acknowledges—indeed is perhaps meant to offset—the stress-engendering travel experience the airport confers on passengers.

Ty Osbaugh, principal/director of Aviation and Transportation at Gensler, the architectural firm behind the Westin Denver International Airport and Incheon International Airport, among others, said the key to a winning new LaGuardia design would be to create a structure that will prove more adaptable to the next generations of commercial flight than the old building was configured to handle.

Another key thing to get right—and something critics are already circling around—is LGA’s “connectivity,” as Osbaugh calls it, to New York: It may be close to the city, but the bus and the rail-and-bus combo public transportation options travelers currently have on offer is off-putting.

The “dichotomy,” is, as Osbaugh put it, LGA passengers who are business travelers who want to whizz through check-in, security, and onward to the gates, and other passengers heading to holiday destinations like the Caribbean, who want to drink, relax, and shop after clearing security.

“These passengers trip each other up,” said Osbaugh, “and the crux of designing airports is to make people feel they are, as much as possible, in control of their journeys.” Designers, he said, are beginning to explore how best to use the different vertical “up and down” levels of airports, rather than passengers simply traversing a one-level linear space.

However, “building up” at LGA is complicated, “because you would probably not want to loom over the GCP,” or Grand Central Parkway, said Osbaugh. “Also, I don’t see moving the GCP as feasible, and you’re not going to build out into the bay. Architecturally, we’re very interested to see what they do at LaGuardia. All we’ve seen far are those renderings. There is definitely a statement being made, but it’s too early to tell how it will be in reality.”

For Gittens, as LGA is primarily a domestic airport, its future architects shouldn’t craft anything too grand, and therefore expensive, in terms of soaring, dramatic entrances and such.

“The key thing is to make it efficient,” she said. “Most of your passengers are business travelers, so focus on making their travel experience as efficient as possible: Encourage them to use technology to pass through the airport, rather than having lots of check-in desks, for example.

“Passengers don’t see how an airport looks, they just want to be able to navigate their way through it as easily as possible.”

Tampa and Denver are two of Gittens’s favorite airports for their ease, while internationally Amsterdam’s Schiphol, while enormous, also “has a logic to it, and an organic feel” that helps passengers pass through it, she added.

“We’re trying to sneak design into people’s airport experience,” said Osbaugh. “Yes, primarily passengers want function and efficiency, but we can still create a beautiful envelope and spaces around that.”

The “sheer magnitude of the moves” of Heathrow’s Terminal 5—its transitions and soaring design—“create an aha moment” for Osbaugh.

JetBlue’s terminal at JFK is, for him, an excellent marriage of function and beauty, the perfect balance of “landside space” and “airside space,” with a sweeping logic taking the passenger through security into a space “that opens up into a marketplace.”

At Gensler, the designers call the mood transition they imagine for passengers as moving from the “42nd Street” of check-in and security—a manageable bustle and blur—through to the more pleasant and appealing “Central Park” of restaurants, concessions, and shops of the area past security.

When Osbaugh was an 8-year-old boy, the first airport he recalls being in—and being fascinated by—was the old Reagan National airport in Washington. He didn’t immediately think designing airports would become his job, but he feels immense pride in designing airports and how that task encapsulates both the civic and commercial.

“An airport is like a separate city within a city with all these living organisms in it. You are part-architect, part-therapist,” he said. “You are trying to mitigate people’s stress at every level, even if a lot of people’s frustration is out of design’s control—it’s the TSA, or storm delays. What we’re trying to do is create good spaces around those things, to use design to help wash or cleanse people’s systems of those frustrations.”

Brian Sills came up with one last “pro” that will likely not disappear with the new terminal.

“Often when you are flying in to NYC and landing at LGA, you get some of the best views of the city,” he said. “They often come up from the south, over the harbor, the Statue of Liberty, and up the East River. The views are spectacular. But once you land, you gird your loins and bolt for the taxi stand.”

Perhaps, if LaGuardia is stylishly reborn in 2019, he won’t be bolting for that taxi stand.