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The Third World, Conveniently Close To Manhattan

a sign reading Welcome To LaGuarida above travellers waiting in line
photo by Jim McIntosh

Vice President Joe Biden was only partly correct when he compared LaGuardia Airport to one he would find in “some third world country.” In fact, many airports in developing countries are significantly better than LaGuardia, though you can probably find a few that are equally bad.

For instance, Gilberto Freyre International Airport, located in Recife, Brazil, was recently upgraded in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup, and was quite attractive and functional even before the enhancement. And in places like Dubai and Qatar, governments are investing enormous amounts to build the best and most modern airport facilities in the world - the type of facility New York City would have built, say, 75 years ago.

Conditions at LaGuardia today, on the other hand, can only be described as pathetic, particularly at the central terminal, Terminal B. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages LaGuardia and the other major New York metro airports, has acknowledged the “inadequacies in several areas of the [Central Terminal Building] and its support facilities,” but the proposed overhaul is still stuck in limbo. In the meantime, under longstanding Port Authority policy, many of LaGuardia’s precious takeoff and landing slots are tied up in short-haul flights that serve a limited audience and which use small regional jets or turboprops.

There is a grain of truth in the argument, put forward by JetBlue and several other airlines that use the central terminal, that it makes little sense to increase pressure on LaGuardia by allowing longer flights that will, in many cases, require bigger aircraft. But overall, the argument falls apart under scrutiny.

The argument arose after the Port Authority announced it was studying the so-called “perimeter rule,” according to The Wall Street Journal. The rule, which took effect in 1984, limited flights from LaGuardia to destinations within 1,500 miles, with the exception of Denver. If the Port Authority indeed decided to lift the rule, it would open the possibility of flights between LaGuardia and West Coast destinations like Los Angeles and Seattle.

The airlines objecting to the change argue that, since the jets that make transcontinental flights would be displacing smaller aircraft that make shorter hops to smaller cities, the number of passengers in LaGuardia’s already strained facilities will rise. Why put pressure on a system that is already overstrained? While this argument is not entirely without merit, it also misses a broader point.

The biggest constraint on LaGuardia’s utility is not its aging terminals, though those don’t help, but rather the limited number of take-offs and landings the airport can accommodate each day. To get the greatest good for the greatest number of fliers, we should allow the largest airplanes that are practical to take advantage of most of those slots. Carriers like JetBlue and Southwest that fly from Terminal B already use mid-sized aircraft that are capable of flying coast to coast, such as Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s. Those aircraft currently fly to places like Orlando and Atlanta. The only thing stopping them from making long-haul flights now is the Port Authority’s self-imposed 1,500 mile limit.

The historical logic behind this restriction dates from a time when LaGuardia was seen as, essentially, a terminal for shuttle flights to places like Washington, D.C. and Boston. We can understand the theory, at least. Even then, however, the logic makes little sense when you step back and consider that these two places (and perhaps Baltimore) are the only cities that travelers can reach efficiently from Manhattan by rail. With LaGuardia the closest airport to midtown Manhattan, it is little wonder that some travelers continue to put up with substandard conditions in the terminal for the convenience of proximity.

Convenience, of course, is relative. It may be worth considering that, to avoid the inevitable delays and congestion at LaGuardia and the other major New York City airports, other travelers are already prepared to pay higher prices and travel a little farther to fly from Long Island’s MacArthur Airport, Westchester County Airport, Stewart International Airport in Newburgh, New York, and even occasionally Philadelphia.

It has taken the Port Authority a long time to get around to revisiting LaGuardia’s perimeter rule. But, then again, the Port Authority exists primarily as a patronage mill and slush fund for the governors of New York and New Jersey, and only secondarily to improve transportation efficiency in the metro New York area. So we can only hope the Port Authority will, in some reasonable timeline, get around to funding improvements to the disaster known as LaGuardia’s Terminal B. In the meantime, it makes sense to squeeze as many travelers as possible through that antiquated toothpaste tube by at least letting them travel to places they really want to go.

All three of New York’s major airports exist today in varying states of decrepitude, with the isolated exceptions of terminals funded by particular airlines, such as Delta’s refurbishment of its LaGuardia space in Terminals C and D, and JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy Airport. Unless and until these airports can receive the more thorough attention needed to update them, the best travelers can hope for is more seats going to places they would rather fly - so they can get out of the airport as soon as possible.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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