Updated: January 28, 2022 12:40:34 pm
Written by Patrick McGeehan
For decades, LaGuardia Airport was one of the most maligned airports in the country — leaky ceilings, cramped corridors, regular rodent sightings and broken escalators set a standard for the dreadful travel experience.
The old airport was so decrepit that Joe Biden, when he was vice president in 2014, famously likened passing through it to a trip to the “Third World.” Travelers were even less charitable, deeming it “disgusting” and “crappy” in social media posts, an embarrassing port of entry to a global capital.
But on Thursday, the views and reviews were far different as state and local officials celebrated the airport’s revival upon the completion of a wholly new main terminal that shares nothing with the old LaGuardia but a name and location along the Queens waterfront.
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The transformation has been so remarkable that the terminal was declared the best new airport building in the world by an international panel of judges.
“We’ve really gone from worst to best, and I love it,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a news conference in the last section of the terminal to open to the public, a sunlit skybridge that connects to 35 spacious new gates and offers a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline.
Despite the fanfare, the $8 billion overhaul of LaGuardia is not complete. Construction of a second terminal by Delta Air Lines is scheduled to conclude by late spring, said Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three big airports that serve the city.
But Cotton expressed relief at reaching another milestone in the yearslong campaign to revitalize the region’s airports. “I literally do not believe there was a single person who thought that the ambition to make LaGuardia a world-class airport would be achieved,” he said.
City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, who said she worked as a flight attendant for five years after college, called the new terminal “a shining example of New York’s potential for a full recovery” from the coronavirus pandemic.
The pandemic actually helped speed construction at the airport because it depressed air travel for much of the past two years, allowing major work without disrupting too many travelers. In 2020, the number of passengers using LaGuardia dropped by nearly 23 million, or 73%, before recovering gradually through most of last year.
Still, some hurdles remain. Cotton had championed a separate project to build an AirTrain to provide a public transit connection that LaGuardia has always lacked.
The Port Authority was pressing ahead with a plan to build one, at a cost of more than $2 billion, that would connect to the subway system and a commuter train line.
But Hochul — responding to criticism of the AirTrain proposal, including concerns its out-of-the-way route would discourage riders — ordered the Port Authority to reconsider it. A review of alternatives, including the extension of a subway line, is underway with no schedule for a decision, meaning that faster travel options to the airport remain years away.
And the airport’s compact size, which is unlikely to change, and its location have contributed to frustratingly long flight delays.
Although Hochul basked in the glow of accomplishment Thursday, the overhaul of LaGuardia was muscled into action by her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, who resigned last year amid accusations of sexual harassment.
Cuomo had pressed the Port Authority to scrap a less-ambitious plan for renovating the airport and to create a gateway worthy of the nation’s biggest city.
Biden’s name came up repeatedly Thursday. New York City’s new mayor, Eric Adams, recalled how Biden cited LaGuardia as a “stain” on the city’s image, then added, “President Biden, just look at us now.”
But Cuomo went unmentioned and uninvited.
The requisite ribbon-cutting that followed the speeches — the fourth already since new sections of the airport started opening — was the first to include the city’s mayor. Cuomo did not get along well enough with the last mayor to share a stage with him.
Kevin O’Toole, chair of the Port Authority, said that in his 4-1/2 years in the role, this was “the first time I have seen a mayor of New York City and a governor of New York in the same room.”
The Port Authority, which is jointly controlled by the governors of New York and New Jersey, also operates Kennedy International Airport in Queens and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. Both those airports are a focus of the agency’s biggest-ever rebuilding campaign.
At Newark Liberty, a massive, $2.7 billion terminal is being built to replace Terminal A. At Kennedy, Hochul has endorsed the agency’s plans for an overhaul that would include construction of a $9.5 billion international terminal.
But LaGuardia is much closer to the finish line. On Thursday, travelers with memories of how unpleasant the airport had long been marveled at the makeover.
“It’s like night and day,” said Annie Coakley, 46, of Chicago.
“When I got off the plane, I was on a call with my brother and I said ‘Oh my God! They’ve done a big change here!’ ” she said. “The whole place is so bright, and it looks very architectural, sharp, and it’s clean.”
Travelers used to race through the concourses trying to avoid making contact with any surfaces. Now they dawdle, watching the images projected onto a water fountain and taking selfies in front of artworks that cover the walls.
“When you get off the plane, it’s just so open and big,” said Chip Dehart, 53, of Phoenix, who was visiting with his wife, Saleta, 51.
“When we first started coming here, it was really rundown, bathrooms were yucky, and we hated it for sure,” Saleta Dehart said. “I was just admiring the tile in the bathroom, and it’s beautiful. The rainbow colors are beautiful.”
The enthusiasm was so contagious at the airport that Donovan Richards, the Queens borough president, engaged in some magical thinking. “I don’t think LaGuardia’s going to be the butt of any more jokes,” he said.
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