Remaking John F. Kennedy International Airport – Terminal City Meets the Megaterminal

By Jonathan Spira on 2 July 2012
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For JFK, which opened its doors as Idlewild in the 1940s, there is now light, space, and air, where darkness and tight spaces were once the rule. Today, more than half of JFK’s terminals are new, having been built since the late 1990s.

Travelers will find welcoming and airy spaces and islands of ticket counters that bear little resemblance to their bank-teller-like forbears.  Glass walls and skylights bring the outdoors in (more than once I have observed a few lost birds flying around in American’s terminal) and the terminals themselves, with marquee restaurants and shopping, have become a kind of destination unto themselves.

Indeed, at the dawn of the jet age, airport stores were a modest convenience (and an afterthought in airport design), a way to get a newspaper or a paperback en route to the gate.  Today, with so many restrictions in place at security checkpoints, sales of bottled water probably exceed that of books, and travelers who arrive early, anticipating a long wait at the checkpoint, have time to kill and money to spend at shops which run from mass-market retailers to purveyors of luxury goods.  The shops themselves are becoming an integral part of the planning of new airport terminals.

While other major airports of the world also have more than one terminal, John F. Kennedy International Airport, typically referred to as JFK, is different.

Built as Idlewild in the 1940s, JFK was redeveloped starting in the late 1950s as Terminal City. In some respects, it presaged the nearby World’s Fair, with terminals instead of national pavilions arranged in a horseshoe pattern around the airport’s core at Tri-Faith Chapel Plaza.

Even today, when you enter JFK by car (and most do), it has the feeling of a city, perhaps one with ghosts such as TWA, Pan Am, National, BOAC, and Eastern.

Delta’s Terminal 3, the former Pan Am Worldport

Sadly, these airlines, as is the case with many of the buildings that made up Terminal City, are now gone.

Seven terminals were originally planned.  Five would each be owned and developed by a separate airline (it was thought, quite correctly, that having separate buildings would encourage airlines to compete with one another for the best design) and three beautiful chapels (Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant) once formed the city’s core.

Although JFK grew to have 10 terminals by the late 1990s, today it once again has seven, and by the middle of the current decade, Terminal City will have a completely new look.

Click here to continue to Page 2JFK’s Terminal City – Then and Now

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