Delta strengthens its hand in battle for NY travel market with $1.4 billion JFK terminal

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Delta’s formula for winning over New York travellers is simple: floor-to-ceiling windows, abundant power outlets and a burger joint with a cult-like following.

The airline opened a sprawling $1.4 billion terminal at Kennedy Airport Friday, a facility more suitable to the high-paying passengers it is trying to attract.

The 346,000-square-foot concourse offers upscale food and shopping options, increased seating and sweeping views of the airport.

It replaces a terminal built by Pan Am in 1960 that was once cutting-edge but had deteriorated, becoming an embarrassing way to welcome millions of visitors to the United States.

Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson said his customers “and the residents of New York now have the international hub facility that they expect and deserve.”

Kennedy Airport is still the primary gateway to the U.S. It welcomed 13.1 million inbound international passengers last year, more than any other American airport, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Miami International Airport was next at 9.8 million, followed by Los Angeles International Airport at 8.3 million.

Delta carries about 2.1 million of those arriving international passengers at JFK, more than any other airline, according to the airport’s operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The facility doesn’t compare to the over-the-top cathedrals to air travel that some cities in Asia and the Middle East have built in the last decade. But travellers will appreciate both the big and small touches. The concourse houses local restaurant favourites like Blue Smoke and Shake Shack, a New York-based burger chain. Meanwhile, 75 per cent of seats at the gates have access to electric outlets.

The most unique part is a 2,000-square-foot rooftop deck that offers a close-up view of the runways and airplanes. But it is part of a new Delta Sky Club — the largest in the Atlanta-based airline’s system — accessible only to members or passengers flying in transcontinental or international business class.

Like at any modern airport, fliers should be prepared for a long walk — it can take up to 15 minutes to reach the furthest gate.

“I did need a plane ride to get from the entrance to here today,” joked U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y.

The expansion added nine new gates at the terminal. Construction is expected to soon begin on 11 additional gates for Delta’s smaller regional jets.

The airline hopes by 2015 to move all of its operations to Terminal 4. Until then, Delta will use a fleet of ten buses to shuttle passengers between Terminal 4 and its other operation in Terminal 2. Delta’s lease in that terminal ends in 2020.

New York is one of the few big cities in the U.S. not dominated by one airline. Carriers fight viciously to win the business of bankers, lawyers and consultants based in the city whose companies pay top dollar for last-minute flights.

United Airlines, which primarily flies out of Newark Liberty International Airport — across the Hudson River in New Jersey — is the region’s largest carrier, flying 27.4 million passengers in the 12 months ending in March.

Delta is now a close second, with 23 million passengers annually in New York. JetBlue follows with 14.6 million and then comes American Airlines with 13.9 million.

“Not only is New York the largest single U.S. air travel market, but and is also the largest premium business airline market in the country,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing. “Airlines that serve New York must bring their ‘A game’ to everything they do, including the airport experience.”

Delta’s strategy in New York is to capture business travellers with more pleasant experience — better planes, friendlier staff and more non-stop flights.

Having those passengers arrive and depart from a rundown terminal didn’t fit with that image.

Demolition crews had already started work Friday on Delta’s old Terminal 3. It was originally called Pan Am’s Worldport, a futuristic concrete structure with a roof resembling a flying saucer. The building helped usher in the modern jet age with Pan Am’s fleet of Boeing 707 Clippers departing there for all parts of the world.

When The Beatles first arrived in the U.S. in February 1964, they came through Worldport. And when the first 747 to carry passengers departed for London in 1970, it left from the iconic terminal.

But in the decades since, the terminal fell into disarray. Pam Am struggled financially and never updated the facility. Delta ended up with the terminal when it purchased many of its Pan Am’s remaining assets out of bankruptcy in the early 1990s.

But the building wasn’t designed for connecting passengers from one flight to another let alone post-9-11 security. Asbestos abatement made any renovations costly.

Last year, travel guide Frommer’s named it the worst airport terminal in America “and probably in the Western world.”

“There’s a sense that the cleaning crew gave up in despair a while ago,” Frommers wrote.

In its final months, the terminal was known for its leaking roof. Ugly white tarps were hung from the ceiling by steel cables. At the centre of each tarp a clear garden hose drained water away as passengers below stood in line, waiting to check their luggage. Some days it seemed like only the pigeons — and there were plenty of them — enjoyed flying from the terminal.

The new terminal is up against some impressive competition.

American already has a sleek, airy, $1.3 billion terminal at JFK. JetBlue’s $800 million terminal opened in 2008 with boutique restaurants that had passengers almost wishing for a flight delay.

United isn’t sitting by quietly either. The airline announced Friday morning that it was “the only U.S. carrier” offering fully flat beds on all long-haul international flights from the New York area.

Delta has already improved its LaGuardia terminal, spending $160 million on renovations. It also brought in OTG Management to set up upscale dinning including a French brasserie, a custom hamburger outlet and a restaurant featuring fancy thin-crust pizzas. Fliers can even order food from iPads and have it delivered to them at their gate.

The airline is also spending heavily to show off its brand throughout the city. It is the official airline of the Yankees, Mets, Knicks and Rangers and has large sponsorship deals with Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden.


Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at