Looking like a tiny abstract sculpture in the midst of the giant terminals of 21st century John F. Kennedy International Airport, architect Eero Saarinen's 1961 TWA World Flight Center sits empty on what Richard Smyth, JetBlue Airways' VP-JFK redevelopment, calls "the best ramp on the airport."
Now a new life for the curvaceous white building is in sight. In 2008 it is to reopen as a check-in point for JetBlue passengers along with some other, aviation-compatible uses. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which owns it, is seeking proposals from developers interested in using it. JetBlue-JFK's largest operator, moving about 8 million passengers through the airport annually-is outgrowing its space in Terminal 6 next door to the old TWA building. It will build a completely new facility behind and connected to the TWA landmark, designated T-5, and move all its operations there.
Flying nearly 100 trips a day from its home airport, JetBlue uses all 13 gates on T-6. When the LCC started JFK service in February 2000, it used one gate in the terminal, which was occupied by United Airlines. Then United moved into T-7, the British Airways building, and JetBlue took over all of T-6.
T-5 was the first airport terminal designed by the Finnish architect, who later created the Pan Am building at JFK and the Washington Dulles terminal. It has been called "an art form in itself" and "an icon of modernist architecture." But the main building and its two satellites, with 1960s-size spaces, soon were overwhelmed by growing traffic and TWA spilled over into T-6. T-5 has been closed since TWA shut down in 2001.
Seeking a new use for the building, the port authority had to satisfy not only FAA, which must approve the environmental aspects of the plan, but also the New York Historical Preservation Office and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. JetBlue, outgrowing its T-6 space, was interested even though "the landside of that building is a problem, with a funnel-shaped entrance. It's very small and it's officially a landmark building, which means no major changes can be made," Smyth points out. Still, the 72-acre site and large ramp make it very attractive, he adds.
Since late 2002, recalls Regine Weston, principal in the Weston-Wong consulting firm of Toronto, "there have been various schemes" to use the building. The final plan "came up in a brainstorming meeting" with the port authority, designers, JetBlue and representatives of preservation groups. At the time, Weston was with Arup, an international aviation consultancy, and she is still part of the Arup team working on the project. Arup created the basic plan, Gensler is the architect and DMJM+Harris is designing operational facilities for the new terminal.
Key to the plan is moving the terminal roadway around the back of the landmark building and double-decking this section of the roadway to link with the dual levels of JFK's terminal loop. Smyth says TWA originated this idea in the late 1980s or early 1990s when it was planning to redevelop the Saarinen building and the newer adjacent terminal. Then TWA decided to build a new terminal behind the old T-5, an idea that interested American Airlines after it bought TWA, according to Smyth. He adds that "at one time" United Airlines was considering it when it was operating in T-6. That's when JetBlue stepped in. He explains that if UAL had gone ahead with the project, JetBlue, as its tenant in T-6, would have had part of the new terminal. So when United dropped the project in 2002, JetBlue took it over.
"This is the only real practical space on the airport to do something as large as this," Smyth says. The new terminal will have 26 gates with an addition with 8-10 gates possible. The front of the building will follow the curve of the roadway, with an angled concourse behind it. The ramp is big enough to permit dual taxiways, giving JetBlue a far more efficient operation than is possible at most of JFK's terminals. There even will be room at the back of the ramp for 8-10 hardstands, although the airline does not plan to use these for passenger operations. The two TWA satellites will be removed, but at least one of the connectors will remain and be equipped with moving walkways for those who prefer to check in there.
Weston notes that for passengers who park in parts of the lower level of the new garage that will be built as part of the project, it will be faster and easier to walk across the road and check in at the TWA building than to use the connector corridor to the JetBlue terminal. For passengers using the new 640,000-sq.-ft. terminal, JetBlue will provide a skybridge with moving walkways to the 1,500-space garage in the airport's inner circle. This bridge also will link the new terminal with JFK's AirTrain system that serves all the terminals and connects with local trains.
Inside the new JetBlue terminal will be a 20-lane security checkpoint and a very large retail and food and beverage complex on the secure side. Ten scanning machines will be integrated into baggage makeup. Arriving passengers will have six oversize bag claim devices on the lower level. They will exit bag claim onto a roadway sheltered by the front of the upper story of the terminal. Smyth puts total cost of the project "in the $750 million range." The port authority will finance most of this with bonds, which JetBlue will repay over a 30-year term. The lease it signed with PANYNJ last year is for 34 years, assuming a four-year construction period before the new facility can go into service.
The old TWA building will remain accessible by road to JetBlue passengers and the general public. By the middle of this year the port authority will issue a request for proposals for development of the landmark, with selection expected by year end. An earlier request for expressions of interest yielded more than 40 responses, PA spokesperson Pasquale DiFulco notes.
The RFP will require that the building stay open to the public and that space for JetBlue self-check kiosks be provided in the front of the lobby. Other uses for the building could include "airport support businesses, a world-class conference center, a world-class restaurant, aviation museum and retail," DiFulco suggests. The port authority will clean and restore the building, retaining the tiny white tiles that cover floors and walls. "We are committed to keeping the same materials and look," he promises.
Smyth says JetBlue itself may put in a proposal to develop the structure, although he does not mention specific uses beyond the check-in facilities. He adds, "We may use some of the elements of the old terminal in the d}cor of the new building."
JetBlue hopes to start work on the project this spring and begin operations in its new facility in three years. With the 26 gates it can go to 250 flights a day without using the hardstands, Smyth says. If it later needs more space, it could extend the concourse toward the area now occupied by T-6 for 8-10 gates. This Phase 2 addition could include federal inspection facilities if the carrier expands its international service. Now its flights from the Dominican Republic use T-4 and JFK's main FIS.
The new complex will give JetBlue the most modern and efficient facilities on the airport. At the same time, it will become the airline identified with the most famous building there. "The world has just one icon that truly epitomizes both New York City and the excitement of aviation and that's JFK's Terminal 5," CEO David Neeleman said when the agreement with the port authority was announced. "We eagerly await the day when Terminal 5 will become JetBlue's home too."