“From worst to best”: La Guardia airport gets a $4 billion makeover

For decades, La Guardia Airport has been one of the most maligned airports in the country – leaky ceilings, cramped hallways, regular rodent sightings and broken escalators have set the standard for the airport experience. dreadful trip.

The old airport was so dilapidated that Joe Biden, when he was vice president in 2014, compared the move to a trip to the “third world”. Travelers were even less charitable, deeming it “disgusting” and “crappy” in social media posts, an embarrassing gateway to a global capital.

But on Thursday, views and critics were starkly different as state and local authorities celebrated the rebirth of the airport following the completion of a brand new main terminal which shares nothing but a name and a location with the old La Guardia along the Queens waterfront.

The transformation was so remarkable that the terminal was declared the best new airport in the world by an international jury.

“We’ve really gone from the worst to the best and I love it,” Governor Kathy Hochul said at a news conference in the final section of the terminal to open to the public, a sunny skybridge that connects to 35 spacious new doors and offers a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline.

Despite the fanfare, La Guardia’s $8 billion overhaul is not yet complete. Construction of a second terminal by Delta Air Lines is expected to be completed in late spring, said Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three major airports that serve the city. .

But Mr Cotton expressed relief at having reached another milestone in the years-long campaign to revitalize the region’s airports. “I literally don’t believe there was a single person who thought the ambition of making La Guardia a world-class airport would be achieved,” he said.

Adrienne Adams, the city council president, 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 has actually helped speed up airport construction as it has curtailed air travel for much of the past two years, allowing for major work without disrupting too many travellers. In 2020, the number of passengers using La Guardia fell by almost 23 million, or 73%, before gradually recovering for most of last year.

Yet, some obstacles remain. Mr Cotton had championed a separate project to build an AirTrain to provide a public transport connection that La Guardia has always lacked.

The Port Authority was moving forward with a plan to build one, at a cost of more than $2 billion, that would connect to the subway system and a commuter rail line.

But Ms Hochul – responding to criticism of AirTrain’s proposal, including a remote route that would discourage passengers – ordered the Port Authority to reconsider. A review of alternatives, including extending a metro line, is underway with no timetable for a decision, meaning faster travel options to the airport remain years away.

And the compact size of the airport, which should not change, and its location contributed to frustrating flight delays.

Although Ms. Hochul enjoyed the shine of her accomplishments on Thursday, La Guardia’s overhaul was put into action by her predecessor, Andrew M. Cuomo, who resigned last year amid accusations of sexual harassment.

Mr Cuomo had urged the Port Authority to scrap a less ambitious plan to renovate the airport and create a gateway worthy of the nation’s biggest city.

Mr. Biden’s name came up several times on Thursday. New York Mayor Eric Adams recalled how Mr Biden had cited La Guardia as a “stain” on the city’s image, then added: “President Biden, look at us now.

But Mr. Cuomo was not mentioned and was not invited.

The much-needed ribbon-cutting that followed the speeches – the fourth already since new sections of the airport opened – was the first to include the city’s mayor. Mr. Cuomo did not get along well enough with the last mayor to share a stage with him.

Kevin O’Toole, the Port Authority’s chairman, said that in his 4½ years in office, it was “the first time I’ve seen a New York mayor and a New York governor 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. These two airports are at the center of the largest reconstruction campaign ever carried out by the agency.

In Newark Liberty, a whopping $2.7 billion Terminal is being built to replace Terminal A. At Kennedy, Ms. Hochul approved the agency’s plans for an overhaul that would include building a $9.5 billion international terminal.

But La Guardia are much closer to the finish line. Travelers with memories of the airport’s unpleasantness had long marveled at the makeover on Thursday.

“It’s like night and day,” said Annie Coakley, 46, of Chicago.

“When I got off the plane, I was on the phone with my brother and I said, ‘Oh my God! They’ve made a big change here!'” she said. “The whole place is so bright and it looks very architectural, crisp and clean.”

Travelers used to run through halls trying to avoid contact with surfaces. Now they stroll, watch the images projected on a water fountain and take selfies in front of the works of art that cover the walls.

“When you get off the plane, it’s so open and big,” said Chip Dehart, 53, of Phoenix, who was visiting his wife, Saleta, 51.

“When we first started coming here it was really run down, the bathrooms were disgusting and we hated it for sure,” Ms Dehart said. “I was admiring the tile in the bathroom and it’s beautiful. The colors of the rainbow are beautiful.

The enthusiasm was so contagious at the airport that Queens Borough President Donovan Richards Jr. indulged in wishful thinking: “I don’t think La Guardia is going to be the butt of any more jokes “, did he declare.

Precious Fondrencontributed report.

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