New York Shouldn’t Close LaGuardia Airport

I’ve argued that the New York LaGuardia Central Terminal replacement won’t happen anywhere close to on schedule. There’s little question in my mind that the project will be a boondoggle.

Indeed, a week ago the project suffered another delay.

But that doesn’t mean, as an op ed in today’s New York Times suggests, that LaGuardia ought to be shuttered and air traffic sent farther outside the metropolitan area.

There are precedents for replacing airports close to the center city with modern, more outlying airports. Hong Kong and Denver are two examples; Berlin will soon follow suit.

Denver is a disaster and the Berlin airport project shouldn’t be held up as a model for anything. But the article is insightful, mostly for what it misses and reveals about the transportation planning mind.

Value of Convenience

The argument is that LaGuardia is convenient but convenience isn’t important.

The popularity of La Guardia, which serves nearly 30 million passengers a year, is almost entirely related to proximity — a typical nine-mile trip to Midtown Manhattan can be done in about 20 minutes during off-peak hours, 10 to 30 minutes less than it would take to get to Kennedy or Newark.

Dismissing the convenience and time savings of proximity, as though it’s unimportant (‘the only reason the airport is popular is because it’s close’) is a true rhetorical sleight of hand. LaGuardia is better for passengers from much of Manhattan because it’s close. That’s a major benefit.

The 30 million passengers figure cited counts both arrivals and departures. If each saves 20 minutes, that’s 600 million minutes per year or 10 million hours. At $50 per hour for the average domestic airline passenger, that’s half a billion dollars a year in time value savings. For the average user of LaGuardia the hourly wage is likely to be higher.

Close-in Airports Are Unpopular With Neighborhoods

The piece suggests that noise levels by LaGuardia are too high. But construction began on the airport in 1937, and planes are quieter than they used to be. What’s more, homes near the airport are more affordable precisely because of their proximity to the airport. While shutting down operations might be a windfall for current property owners, the existence of the airport is hardly unfair to them — and eliminating the airport could lead to gentrification and less affordable housing.

Somehow Congestion in New York Airspace is Because of the Airport?

We’re supposed to believe that we don’t need the airport’s capacity, that the number of passengers and the frequency of flights that clog airspace is because New York has three primary airports.

With the consolidation of the major United States airlines and the sluggishness in the global economy, the much larger Kennedy and Newark airports could accommodate La Guardia’s passenger load, by adding more frequent service and using larger aircraft, if the F.A.A. were to lift the caps on the number of flights allowed there.

..Most flights serving La Guardia already duplicate flights that serve Kennedy and Newark. Many of these flights are to a relatively small number of regional hubs. Average loads per flight at La Guardia are only two-thirds those at Kennedy. Small regional jets, with fewer than 100 seats per plane, make up a little more than half of La Guardia’s peak-period flights. Airline efficiency would be improved by concentrating traffic on fewer, larger aircraft, while still maintaining service to major hubs.

Suggesting that New York JFK and Newark aren’t themselves crowded and subject to delays is a strange position to take. If the FAA lifted slot restrictions at JFK then JFK would be permitted to offer more peak afternoon and evening departures, but those restrictions aren’t in place arbitrarily, there really are capacity constraints not just at the airport but also the airspace. And the size of aircraft operating — the small planes and high frequencies — exist for a reason as well. They serve smaller markets, and they offer greater flexibility and convenience to passengers to fly when they wish. That’s economic value, again because wasted travel time is an economic cost.

Of course LaGuardia has limited operations and doesn’t serve long distance destinations with larger aircraft precisely because of the legal restrictions that are placed on it. While true that it’s difficult to expand the airport’s footprint for more and longer runways that’s again a function of planning process as much as anything else.

Peering into the Planner’s Mind

The author claims it’s too costly to renovate LaGuardia or improve public transportation options, yet prefers to see airports like Newburgh Stewart get more use (“Stewart, over 60 miles north of Midtown, in Orange County, N.Y., has significant room for expansion and can accommodate long overseas flights…”). It’s 60 miles from the city. Extending public transportation would be mind blowingly expensive.

Yet somehow international flights should land there (oddly, this case is made right after arguing that Newark and JFK could pick up LaGuardia’s slack).

Airlines fly to close-in airports for a reason. Passengers want to fly to close-in airports for a reason. Those reasons do not seem to count in the mind of the planner, who argues for more money to build out public transit to Newark as well. (Time for the author to ask for his flight in return for this advocacy?)

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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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Comments

  1. Closing LaGuardia is a bad idea! Yes, it needs lots of work. That work will cost a large amount of money. But, to improve LaGuardia will be such an achievement. What it will take is leadership with the guts to take a stand, and spend the money! There is so much more that could be done with LaGuardia. A total make-over is possible, but that could require a temporary closing, and that in itself would teach these know-it-alls what a permanent closing would do to New York City!

  2. “Denver is a disaster.” Excuse me? Just because you state that–in hopes that it will reinforce your argument against major hub airports being more removed from a city–does not make it true.

    Once Denver’s East Line offering rapid transit (35 min) between DEN and downtown Denver is completed next year, there won’t be much of an issue at all. Hardly a disaster. http://www.rtd-fastracks.com/main_6

    NYC hub airports need bigger and better terminals. NYC terminus airports need better proximity to the city. LaGuardia only offers the possibility of being close to the city. Newark offers better proximity to the city than does JFK, and when its PATH train extends to Newark–as has been proposed to start construction in 2018 and finish in 2023–it will then have the transit necessary to make transfer between hub airport and city more efficient.

    JFK needs a nonstop express train between it and the city. That would cost much. less than refurbishing the entire LaGuardia terminal.

    I don’t know whether closing LaGuardia is the right answer. But I do know that having Newark and JFK serve as the true major hub airports for NYC is the better answer. LaGuardia isn’t worth the investment compared to that needed sooner for Newark and JKF.

  3. @Secretary Toaster – the median income of an airline passenger is substantially greater than that of the average household.

  4. I agree with @Bill on the transportation pieces. The key to having a successful out of town airport in a dense urban setting is having a good public transportation system to get folks there. JFK and EWR both have very mediocre systems when it comes to this regard when you compare it to systems elsewhere in the world. You don’t need to look much further than HK with in-city check-in, clean, quiet, comfortable trains built just for airport passengers, to see how much further we could go. My home airport, SFO, I would say even wins out over NYC with BART going directly into the terminal. NYC tried to piggy back off the existing subway/LIRR/NJT infrastructure and it falls short in execution.

    The other large factor is just the age of the terminals. Generally speaking, American airports are significantly older than those elsewhere in the world. With that said, I would argue, new terminals in the US are just as nice as those elsewhere. The new LAX TBIT is world class, heck even the new Terminal 4 at JFK is just as nice as anything you will find in other parts of the world – and the food options are half decent to boot. There is no doubt in my mind that if LGA was given the resources to refurbish/build/fix-up its existing terminals it too could be a great airport.

  5. Newark effectively has just two runways and is already capacity constrained. That’s no solution.

    I know less about JFK, but I gather things are tight there as well.

    The assertion that Stewart, 60 miles away, could figure meaningfully in any of this is simply farcical. How do I know? Just look how many flights they have there now: seven departures per day (ex Jet Blue & Alegiant to Florida).

    Last, a lot of rich and influential people use LGA. No one is going to shoot their airport out from under them in my lifetime — or yours.

  6. close rikers and expand lga over there. Rikers is an abomination and needs to be shut down! Lga could be a true hub with extra capacity to spare. I forget the site, but some planners seemed to have a well thought out plan.

  7. Gary — while I agree with most of your points, LGA *does* significantly complicate NY airspace. Because it’s pretty much “in between” EWR and JFK, those two airports have very complex approach routes that basically go the long way around to avoid LGA’s airspace. If you’ve wondered why flights from SFO to JFK, for example, take ~15 extra minutes once they’ve basically arrived, it’s often because the approach to JFK has to do the long way around… the planes go deep into the ocean and then loop around to land to avoid LGA’s landing routes.

    Frankly, the three airports need to be torn down and rebuilt, especially EWR and LGA, neither of which have enough space for parallel runways with any kind of wind. JFK is better (two sets of two runways with good separation), but it could use more capacity too and sadly doesn’t have space for it. Alas, there’s no space left, so NYC is going to be stuck with a broken system until NexGen incrementally helps things along.

  8. “If the FAA lifted slot restrictions at JFK then JFK would be permitted to offer more peak afternoon and evening departures, but those restrictions aren’t in place arbitrarily, there really are capacity constraints not just at the airport but also the airspace.”

    Well, yes, there are huge capacity constraints in the airspace BECAUSE there are the 3 big airports (+TEB) in close proximity. The biggest benefit of closing LGA would be to completely clean up the air traffic situation in NYC, reducing delays nationwide. According to the FAA, 1/3rd of the delays in the entire country are because of NYC’s air traffic cluster****.

    Of course, This doesn’t fix the issue of terminal and ramp space necessary for moving 30mil/yr pax elsewhere, nor the necessary high-speed mass transit upgrades necessary to get to EWR or JFK in an amount of time comparable to LGA now.

  9. I agree with Gary. Closing LGA would be huge mistake. Convenience to city is huge, no one from Manhattan would go Newburgh that far away. Regarding noise levels, adding more planes would cause more noise with larger airplanes over those neighborhoods, so closing LGA and adding/redistributing planes to JFK and EWR doesn’t solve the noise problem. If people don’t like noise of LGA, then move. It’s a free country.

  10. Close LaGuardia? Those politicians and so-called public servants need to get with it and do their jobs and figure out how to improve and keep it. Just because you’re too lazy to work on the problems, LaGuardia shouldn’t be closed. Disgusting.

  11. @judyserienagy, totally agree. I dread getting to/from JFK, the traffic is unbearable at almost any hour of the day. Closing LGA would only make things worse (on the ground.)

  12. Since when did DIA become a disaster?

    Yes, it was way over budget, but that’s 20 years in the past.

  13. i travel in and out of LGA everyweek. Its a depressing journey from Long Island on the LIRR to Woodside tgen an Uber to LGA.
    The days when it rains or snows or even get a little windy all hell breaks loose at LGA. There is barely crawling space airside on normal days but when you sprinkle a couple of cancellations on top its sardines.
    Granted LGA has location for the Manhattan folks Manhattan is not the only Mecca.
    The drive time from JFK to the city is not too good. But put a high speec train link direct to the city should solve that. American and Delta have excellent terminals at JFK and the domestic to international connections over JFK itself make JFK a super hub oppertunity. Drop LGA!

  14. @Secretary Toaster – I looked into this 15 years ago in connection with a business idea and found average income for a domestic customer was then ~ $90k. It will be higher now. Airline magazine advertising packets were the best source of this kind of data at the time.

  15. LaGuardia’s a dump and an embarrassment. They need to shut it down. Instead, improve public transportation to the other 2 airports or build a new one farther out w/ high speed train access.

  16. I disagree that DEN is a disaster. Yeah, it’s not super close to downtown, but it’s not a bad drive either, and the city is making good progress on connecting it via light rail for those who prefer not to drive or take a shuttle or taxi.

    Yes, LGA is great for convenience to many destinations in the city. But, the issues with that airport run much deeper than outdated terminal facilities. Remember how the place flooded during Sandy? Do any of these plans to improve it really deal with the issues that long-term climate change are going to cause with that airport, which could see flooding equivalent or worse to that experienced during Sandy on a regular basis? I don’t think JFK or EWR could currently absorb all of the capacity LGA has now without some work, but spending the money it would take to fix LGA on improvements to the other two airports to increase their capacity, as well as to provide new, faster transit options, sounds like a no brainer to me. The city then would get the LGA space back for new neighborhoods, as well as have the opportunity to create a buffer zone between the city and bay that could serve the dual purpose of parks and recreational space that also doubles as a flood zone/barrier. JFK and EWR would also operate more efficiently, especially in less than ideal weather, without the complication of the LGA approach and departure paths in between them. A lot of the capacity of LGA could be made up for by the airlines operating larger aircraft on domestic routes from the other two airports.

    I think it’s an idea that definitely deserves the same attention that a rebuilding of the LGA terminal facilities is getting.

  17. Denver is arguably one of the best airports in the country. How exactly is it a disaster? Three others have posted the same sentiments in the comments here, would love to see you address this, Gary!

  18. This is pretty terrible analysis, Gary. You neglect his point about JFK being ripe for mass transit expansion, make an assertion about Denver that appears to be manifestly untrue, don’t understand how LGA impacts space at other airports (and how bigger planes and fewer slot restrictions can change things), and generally take his points out of context.

    I don’t know the right answer to airports in NYC. But I read the times piece with interest and was excited to see a response to it. Based on what I’ve read, that times writer clearly knows what he’s talking about and you don’t. Which might be why he’s in the times and you’re pushing credit card sign ups, but I thought you’d have more insight here than you do.

  19. LGA was my airport of choice when, as a teen, I’d fly to see family on Long Island. Since they all lived on the North Shore it cut a lot of travel time. Sure it’s a terrible airport and the rental car sites are miserable it still saved me time!

    BTW, I absolutely hate DEN. When we lived there (2001) it sure stank to drive right past the old Stapleton site and still have 15 more min. Not to mention the security nightmare and roof repairs that were needed.

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