New York LaGuardia is About to Become One of the Biggest White Elephants in History

New York LaGuardia’s biggest problem is congestion. They could use more takeoff and landing space for sure but primarily it’s New York airspace that’s the issue. Without fixing air traffic control, there’s little that can be done to the physical plant that will truly solve problems.

LaGuardia has been slated to get a new Central Terminal in 2021 and I never believed the timeline.

Now, instead, Vice President Biden and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo today announced a whole new plan for the airport instead. Here’s what they have in mind:

  • Build a single large terminal to replace the current disparate terminals, and make it 600 feet closer to the Grand Central Parkway so that there’s more room for “flight operations and runways.” (Although there won’t be more runway space, they’re keeping the existing runways.)
  • Connect to the Willets Point subway station by AirTrain (in other words, there’s not going to be a subway stop at the airport) and ferries that dock at the Marine Air Terminal.
  • “[S]tate-of-the-art, post-9/11 security system…along with a hotel and business conference center.”

I can hardly imagine New York air transportation being without much of LaGuardia’s capacity between the time they demolish existing terminals and complete a new terminal in their place.

There’s no universe in which “[t]he project, which awaits the Port Authority’s approval, could begin as soon as 2016 and should take 18 months to complete” a line from Governor Cuomo that’s repeated in several places.

Other coverage says it will take “at least three years to complete.” Emphasis should be placed on at least.

Apparently the confusion comes from the way they’ve explained the timeline, perhaps intentionally.

  • The project is initially slated to take 4.5 years
  • The terminal will supposedly open for use after three years
  • Full completion is projected for another 18 months after that.

Cost is being cited as $4 billion with the government picking up $2 billion. Mark my words: it will be more. $4 billion was the cost just for the Central Terminal project, not for what’s being proposed today.

For good measure, while they’re at it, JFK airport will get a new hotel. JFK could use one on the airport grounds of course, but then it could use a lot of things. Since JFK sees more connecting traffic than LaGuardia does, it’s the airport whose terminals could genuinely use better connections — much more so than LaGuardia.

As I wrote just a week and a half ago about New York LaGuardia,

You don’t need “first-class shopping, dining, and business amenities” and “A people-mover that enables passengers to traverse easily from one end of the airport to the other” at LaGuardia (although at a price of zero these things would be ‘nice’). You need things that increase the airport’s capacity to… get people in and out quickly, and get planes in and out of the air quickly. Investments should play to the airport’s strengths, how it’s actually used.

And in fact, this project will do the opposite of what’s needed. What LaGuardia does well now is get passengers in and out quickly. With four relatively small separate terminals and multiple security checkpoints you get from curb to gate in minutes (with PreCheck, generally less than 5). A sprawling single terminal will mean more time spent getting in and out of the airport.

They’re taking what’s good about LaGuardia and ruining it for the prospect of a ‘showpiece’ that New York doesn’t need.

Instead, New York airspace needs better air traffic control, the airport would perhaps benefit from demand-based pricing for takeoffs and landings, and LaGuardia could use better connectivity to ground transportation.

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. Hmm…I wonder if moving the terminal would allow for a parallel 13/31. That would actually be extremely helpful (but still subject to the issues SFO has during any weather, since you could only use both in VMC).

  2. Maybe I just read your stuff too much, but I largely had the same reaction to it. My biggest complaints about the handful of times I’ve used LGA are that it doesn’t have a subway station or other train connection (Not that JFK’s train system is stellar either) and that you can sit on the runway for an hour on a perfect weather day for no other reason than too many planes trying to take off. This could improve things on the connectivity to the city. But, I can’t see how this will keep airlines from having to schedule a flight with an extra 45-60 minutes of fluff time to account for runway gridlock.

    That said, if you aren’t going to do anything about the gridlock at least there’ll be some snazzy new facilities to wait out your flight delays in.

  3. @aviators99 that’s not what they’re going to do (although I don’t think moving 600 feet is going to give you enough space to do that). They specifically aren’t moving the runway at all to avoid the reviews, studies, and approvals that would be required.

  4. only business consultants are obsessed with “getting in and out quickly”. the other 75% of the flying public actually want to use the terminal facilities and would much welcome a new terminal that doesn’t look like a greyhound bus terminal from Binghamton

    one can easily achieve both – DCA is a very good example. Very short distances from curb to gate, but reasonably pleasant. It’s very sad when NY’s premier domestic gateway is comparable to things like MNL or NBO.

  5. @patricia actually they’re trying to do way too much with the airside revamp at DCA, putting in too much retail, not enough seating capacity left and the gate areas are packed without any reasonable passenger traffic flow.

    Regardless, there’s no need to tear down the terminals and build a hotel. The LaGuardia terminals don’t really need to be connected, though they could improve low emission bus service. They could do a revamp in stages of each to improve concessions, actually the concessions at terminal C and the central terminal really aren’t bad at all…

  6. So did I read correctly that in late 2019 they will be starting a 12-year, $15 billion construction project at LGA?

  7. @Gary ah so I’m not the only one who feels like DCA airside has become an incredible sardine tin lately? A dozen new places to buy expensive sandwiches, but good luck being able to walk 10 feet without running into someone.

    They really need to move forward with the proposed plan to redo security, etc. Having the entire 2nd level be airside would provide direly needed real estate. A commuter terminal to replace 35X would be icing on the cake. Yes, this would all be expensive, but with the kind of traffic DCA is doing these days it is justified in my biased opinion.

  8. @CW and try doing simple things like boarding and deplaning. It’s just a sea of people packed into the gate areas because no space is left for those ‘secondary functions’…!

  9. @Gary, too bad they aren’t doing the runway. I actually do believe that 600 feet would be enough room to change the existing parallel taxiway to be a runway, and build another taxiway so that you’d have an inner/outer.

  10. Look for a remake of the Twilight Zone episode “The Odyssey of Flight 33” ( where the plane returns to the past. This time it lands at LaGuardia because nobody can tell the difference. Only when the passengers reach the street and see the cars do they realize that they have gone 30 years into the past!

  11. @aviators99 if it was enough, that would be quite cool, because they ARE runway constrained. Absent that I think they probably need to do demand pricing as a second best.

  12. Gary-
    What is the thought process that leads decision makers to a proposal like this? I have worked alongside my fair share of politicians to see how they are able grease the skids quite a bit and spend an awful lot of money on poorly thought out things. Maybe they think that putting lipstick on the pig will be well received. Is this revenue graft to the port authority, or whoever owns LGA, in the form of enhanced dining/shopping options and higher rent factors?

    Even with my cynical view of politicians and the decisions they make I can’t fathom why anyone would propose such a massive and expensive project without addressing the fundamental problems with the airport. Yes, I’d like better food options while delayed and stranded at Laguardia. But, I’d rather not be delayed and stranded at Laguardia as long as I am getting used to.

  13. Even with my cynical view of politicians and the decisions they make I can’t fathom why anyone would propose such a massive and expensive project without addressing the fundamental problems with the airport.

    In San Francisco they spent billions to replace a bridge withou adding a single lane. To quote the geico commercial, it’s what you do.

  14. The United States has a severe lack of runways, rather than airspace, causing congestion issues. Sadly, the anti-airport forces in this country are quite loud and powerful (look at the flawed proposals to close LGA altogether).

    Unfortunately for LGA, any parallel runway (created by using an existing taxiway) wouldn’t permit simultaneous instrument approaches (see SFO; you need several thousand feet of separation like LAX before the FAA will permit it for safety reasons), so in bad weather, everything will fall apart.

  15. You can only hope that the agencies involved do not get the necessary funding to make this occur.

  16. Thank you for your candid and correct assessment of the problems with this fiasco. Time to contact legislators to pull the financial plug on short-sighted planning.

  17. Extremely wishful thinking, but I would rather have a $4 billion on a state-of-the-art Airport Express system similar to Hong Kong, going from midtown to the three airports. Let LGA rot.

  18. $4 billion and 3 years? At best, that will buy you a cosmetic update in NYC. And the LGA airtrain to Flushing will be useless to most people except Long Islanders. Perhaps it’s a giveaway to those constituents. I don’t see anybody from Manhattan or anywhere else going all the way to Flushing, to then transfer to the LGA airtrain. Whether you take the LIRR or the 7, it’s still a trek getting out there.

  19. Let’s see, King Cuomo wants to spend $4 billion (min.) for the airport and increase NYC min. wage to $15/hour 3 years before the increase would apply Upstate! Definitely great for NYC employment. Upstater’s get casinos from His Lordship to boast employment (only short-term) and eventually they will bleed all the $ from residents living north of NYC.
    Cost be damned, Cuomo’s doing all he can to build a resume for a future run at the Presidency!

  20. Can they add some gravel and fill dirt to the sea to increase their footprint like other airports have already done? I’m not familiar with LGA so I have no idea if this will work.

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