The Big Apple turns sour: why are New York’s airports so bad?

7 February 2019 (Last Updated January 30th, 2020 07:30)

Overall passenger satisfaction at US airports has increased in recent years, but several new surveys show that travellers using New York’s three airport hubs are routinely dissatisfied with their experience and rate them as the worst in the country. From inadequate infrastructure to poor facilities, what are the main issues infuriating flyers and what measures are underway to address them?

The Big Apple turns sour: why are New York’s airports so bad?
Aerial view of JFK airport in New York. Credit: Brandon Van Acker.

New York is considered among the few elite, truly global cities in the world. Yet travellers in and out of the Big Apple, as it is affectionately known, are often left with a bad taste in their mouth.

Last year, the city’s three main airport hubs – LaGuardia (LGA), John F. Kennedy International (JFK) and Newark Liberty International (EWR) – consistently ranked the worst in America.

Each came in rock bottom of surveys and ratings conducted by J. D. Power (surveying 40,000 respondents), the Points Guy (based on data), and the Wall Street Journal’s inaugural top 20 US airports guide (informed by 4,800 readers).

The results are a damning verdict on the key transport hubs used by tourists and locals alike in one of the world’s most famous and visited cities – so what’s irking passengers?

What’s the problem?

The surveys suggest that JFK, LGA and EWR all fall short in several key areas considered vital to passenger satisfaction. These include poor transport to and from the airports, with some reports noting that traffic congestion at LaGuardia is so hellish, passengers are forced to jump from cabs along the highway to reach the terminal by foot, bags in tow.

When travellers do eventually arrive to any of the three airports, they often experience cramped, run-down conditions, poor facilities, and lengthy delays at security, as well as long waits for connections.

“Travellers often experience cramped, run-down conditions, poor facilities and lengthy delays at security.”

According to the Department of Transportation, at LaGuardia only about 72% of arriving flights were on time in 2017. Newark fared even worse at 67%. The average among US airports was over 80%.

Most of these issues stem from the same root cause: over-congestion and under-capacity, says Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute think-tank and contributing editor to City Journal.

“These airports were not built for the level of traffic they currently deal with today – LaGuardia was supposed to handle eight million people a year but now handles around 13 million; the terminal size is too small,” she explains.

According to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns the airports, more than 132 million passengers passed through the facilities in 2017 – up 2.2% from the year before. Last year, JFK set a record with more than 59 million passengers, as did Newark with more than 43 million passengers.

What is being done?

It’s fair to say that under successive governors, New York’s airports have been largely overlooked – until Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Under his watch, JFK, LGA and EWR are all either currently undergoing or are earmarked for renovations, rebuilding or expansion.

“New facilities will include larger waiting areas, new retail, restaurants and bars, free high-speed WiFi and charging stations.”

LaGuardia, which consistently ranks the lowest in customer satisfaction surveys, is currently undergoing an $8bn rebuilding programme, with the first new gates in the airport’s Terminal B opening last November.

When the multi-phase project is completed, which is expected in 2021, the airport should comfortably accommodate 30 million passengers a year and be full of new facilities. LaGuardia Gateway Partners and Delta are privately financing two-thirds of the redevelopment costs.

Last year, Cuomo’s office announced a $13bn plan, including $12bn in private funding, to transform JFK into “a modern 21st century airport” with two new “world-class” international terminal complexes on the airport’s north and south sides. The renovations are expected to collectively increase the airport’s capacity by at least 15 million passengers a year.

New passenger facilities will include larger waiting areas, new retail, restaurants and bars, free high-speed WiFi and charging stations, as well as security enhancements. The first new gates are expected to be operational by 2023 with the entire project complete in 2025.

Similarly, Newark is getting a new one-million-square-foot terminal to replace Terminal A, which originally opened in the 1970s. The new facility will have, according to the Port Authority, modern amenities, more concession space and wider concourses to improve passenger throughput, as well as 33 common-use gates to accommodate airlines.

Problem solved?

Though long overdue, Gelinas says the planned and ongoing upgrades over the next two to three years will solve the majority of problems passengers currently experience.

Even the issue of transportation to and from the airports will be partially solved, she says, due to an air train connection being built at LaGuardia, although she adds this probably won’t be sufficient in the long term.

“The issue of the runway capacity and traffic control still need to be addressed.”

“The problem is, it is not a European-style ‘train-to-plane’ service, where you have room for your suitcases and are not crammed in with commuters,” explains Gelinas. “Passengers will still have to switch trains at Kennedy to get on the air train there and the same with Newark and eventually LaGuardia.”

In the longer term, Gelinas says all three airports will face further capacity problems on the runways, which will struggle to handle an increasing level of traffic demand.

“The issue of the runway capacity and traffic control still need to be addressed,” she says, “If we are going to continue to grow air traffic we will need to build more runways, which is not as easy as building terminals because it often requires moving houses and buying land, then there is the issue of climate change and whether these runways will, at some point, be underwater.”

However, she notes that there are other ways to address this issue besides building new runways, such as bigger, better high-speed rail to replace short-haul flights or more efficient traffic control systems that enable planes to be spaced closer together.

What else is needed?

Given the lengthy oversight in upgrading JFK, LGA and EWR, some, including Gelinas’s Manhattan Institute colleague Joe Tierney, have advocated for airport privatisation, pointing to success stories in the UK, such as Heathrow and Gatwick. This could, they claim, create more competition between the three airports and incentivise lower costs and better efficiency.

However, Gelinas disagrees with this premise. “I think privatisation is a red herring because the airports are already functionally private. LaGuardia’s terminal is being built, operated and maintained by a private consortium; the Port Authority is really just a conduit for private deals between the airlines and the terminal operators, and it will be the same thing at Kennedy.”

Furthermore, she adds, terminals are already profitable and not hugely inefficient, so little benefit could be derived from privatisation.

As renovation work continues at New York’s city airports, for the short-term, at least, the hubs are likely to continue receiving poor ratings. But once complete, they will hopefully match up to the impeccable international reputation of the city they serve.