NO MATTER HOW FREQUENTLY OR infrequently one takes to the clouds, shouldn’t air travel be an uplifting experience in a nonliteral sense, a reminder that every flight is a victory over gravity? Airports in recent decades have accommodated tighter security and morphed into malls; still, if an air terminal doesn’t blend a touch of poetry along with efficiency and commerce, it misses a vital opportunity—merely colluding in the reduction of what was once an adventure into something closer to a bus trip in the sky.
The old LaGuardia, notorious for congestion, delays, and snafus throughout the passenger experience, could be mistaken for an overscaled Greyhound station. In 2014, then-Vice President Joseph Biden, a careerlong advocate of transportation infrastructure, famously assailed it as worthy of “some Third World country.” Yet the airport that travelers have complained about for years is finally becoming one to be proud of. HOK Architects, WSP, SkanskaWalsh, and LaGuardia Gateway Partners (LGP, a private entity selected by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to coordinate this long-overdue project and manage it until 2050), working within spatial constraints and staging demolition and construction amid continuous airline operations (complicated by pandemic conditions), have transformed LGA’s central Terminal B into a place that can elevate spirits as well as move bodies. Its physical form evokes greater New York; its technologies address critical functional problems; and its detailing provides what its predecessor lacked: a tangible sense of place.
The Port Authority’s goal for air passenger facilities, says project director Jessica Forse, is nothing less than “to make them world class and best in class.” The challenges to reach such a condition were obvious, with both landside spaces and airside operations stretched past their capacity. “Anybody that knows LaGuardia,” says Paul Auguste, HOK’s director of aviation and transportation, “knows you get in the plane and you’re sitting on the taxi lines for minutes, hours, whatever it is, trying to queue up to get to the runway.” The airport needed to replace its crescent of four terminal piers and expand airfield space for aircraft and service vehicles. Yet LGA, sandwiched between Grand Central Parkway and Long Island Sound, lacks the lateral greenfield area that other airports might expand into. Reconfiguring it was not unlike building a ship inside a bottle.
The Port Authority’s initial plan, Auguste says, called for a linear headhouse with a series of piers,
“very similar to what was there,” requiring a complex construction process that “would have made the existing operations impossible.” Instead, HOK and partners
“looked at how we could phase this to save time and money,” Auguste says;” because the crescent-shaped headhouse was there, and you need to maintain operations for departures and arrivals, we changed our design to fit the site.” HOK and partners moved the headhouse as close as possible to Grand Central Parkway, some 600 feet south; removed a 3,000-space parking garage; and created two separate concourses in the form of islands connected to the headhouse by pedestrian bridges stretching over taxiways. This arrangement recaptured about 40 acres of airside land and gained two miles of usable taxiway, allowing aircraft two paths to each of the 35 gates (instead of pulling in and backing out) and easing services such as fueling and baggage handling. The skybridges also give pedestrians a striking view of planes passing underneath as well as panoramic views of the Manhattan skyline. Terminal B is now a microcosm of New York, a city of islands linked by bridges.
Derek Thielmann, LGP’s project director for design and construction, says the revised plan meant “we could build a new headhouse without impacting traffic to the existing terminal, and then we had other real estate to the east,” where they placed a new central heating and refrigeration plant, additional apron, and a concourse, then figured out how to connect the components. “We came up with a phasing plan that basically shrunk the Port’s plan from 16 phases down to five… We were maintaining existing airport operations while we were able to construct all-new infrastructure, and our phasing allowed us to actually frontload the construction, so in the first three and a half years, we were essentially delivering about 75 percent of the project.” The island concourses allowed some construction to take place above the old terminal before demolition, saving time and costs; only one gate had to be closed at a time. The new 850,000-square-foot terminal uses 40,000 tons of steel, including nearly 10,000 pieces in the Arrivals and Departures Hall, weighing 12,000 tons (heavier than the steel in the Eiffel Tower).
“From the airlines’ perspective,” Auguste comments, “it was brilliant… one day overnight, they went from the old facility to the new facility.” Aircraft now “have multiple avenues to taxi around all the operations of Terminal B and get to the runways quicker, so we have greatly reduced the congestion; it greatly reduced the time it takes to get to the runway, so it’s going to be a win-win for airport operations, airlines, and passengers. You’ll never have those crazy 20-plane piers trying to get to the runways any more.” Interior dimensions are also generous, Auguste adds: “The old concourses were about 60 feet, 65 feet wide, with eight-foot ceilings. The new concourse has 55-to 60-foot ceilings and is 120 feet wide.” With 1.3 million square feet of new terminal space, Terminal B gives passengers on five airlines (American, United, Air Canada, Southwest, and JetBlue) a capacious atmosphere, defined by verticality (the four levels include mezzanines) and generous light wells on both landside and airside. The building’s form also “allows us to maximize the heat that’s rising up and heating all the levels, not just dissipating underneath the ceilings and in other space. So we have an atrium design that really created this efficient mechanical model.” Though airports commonly locate long walkways underground, the LGP team ruled out tunneling to the island concourses after considering site conditions. “It had a number of challenges,” Thielmann says, “just given the water table we have here at LaGuardia,” as well as maintenance. “And so we elected to go above and go high,” not only saving construction time but giving LGA an immediate pair of icons. The bridges, composed of structural steel trusses with glass curtain walls, are more than corridors; with furniture, discreet video signage, and ample headroom, they are high points in the passenger experience. “We’ve managed to incorporate some of our food and beverage offerings into both bridges,” Thielmann continues, “so people can actually sit down, have lunch, and have planes taxi underneath their feet.”
Local aerospace enthusiasts may recall Eero Saarinen’s TWA Flight Center at JFK (1962) as an aesthetic triumph with dramatic concrete forms that quickly became impractical: its gates were too small to accommodate the next decade’s jumbo jets. Here, the design is future-proofed. Skybridges A and B, spanning 500 and 450 feet long, respectively, are elevated about 60 feet above the elevated about 60 feet above the tarmac, high enough to allow not only the Airplane Design Group III aircraft that use the terminal (with tail heights 30-45 feet high, as defined by the Federal Aviation Administration) but Group IV (45-60 feet) as well. “If for some reason a Group IV aircraft got lost and was headed that direction,” Auguste says, “without any fuel in it, without any passengers in it, full air in all the tires, so it was high as it could be, it still clears underneath our bridge.”
HOK structural engineer Francesca Meola points out that a proprietary parametric modeling tool, now called HOK Stream, allowed crucial calculations within a tight timetable. “We were able to quickly generate models to understand the behavior,” she says, “and understand if the solution was cost-effective and if it was performing, not only from a structural standpoint for strength and serviceability criteria, but also for performance for vibrations, because with pedestrian bridges in particular, you have a mass of pedestrians walking at the same time.”
The vertical trusses, with a depth varying from 20 to 40 feet above an eight-foot base concealing ductwork, are connected with moment-frame beams in the vertical plane, and with horizontal bracings on the roof and in the plane of the bridge deck, for lateral stability. The chords, Meola continues, are flat built-up I sections; the diagonals combine rolled sections and built-up sections, with grade 65 steel for the longer, shallower Bridge A and grade 50 for the shorter, deeper Bridge B. Braced frames for the longitudinal direction are necessary only on the concourse side, near escalators and elevators.
“During construction,” she says, “we were actually able to time the final base connections of the front row of columns to eliminate any permanent tension in the foundations that would have resulted from the north bridge towers acting as fixed elements. The capacity of the piles in tension is like a third of the one in compression, so this strategy allowed for substantial savings in not just the superstructure but even more in the foundation system.”
The concourse roofs, Meola says, are flat on one side, “but then it folds to follow the line of sight, so we were able to follow the shape with these trusses,” four feet six inches deep and bent. In addition, “we minimize the impact of the lateral system. Everybody complains about brace frames; nobody wants columns, and nobody wants brace frames; so we were able to locate those right where we have stairs, so they will not impact on the flow of people walking, and they would not be in the middle of the structure.”
The bridges expose the trusses, clad in glass-fiber-reinforced concrete and gypsum (GFRC and GFRG), as expressions of the structure, implicitly conveying the scale, strength, and stability of the steel as well as maximizing views for departing or arriving passengers. Where the old LGA’s generic, dingy spaces compelled hasty movements, much as Penn Station brings out every commuter’s inner scurrying rodent, the new LGA’s high ceilings and graceful members impart a welcome sense of calm. The Arrivals and Departures Hall is a four-story structure
with three separate roadways for different functions, Auguste notes: ground level for buses and other high-occupancy vehicles, the second for arrivals (including conventional taxis and private-car pickup), and the third for departures. Planned before the rise of Uber, Lyft, and similar ride-hailing services, the facility relegates for-hire vehicles to the new parking garage, geofenced, Thielmann says, to prevent motorcar tsunamis in the pickup area. From entrances to gates, Terminal B is designed for intuitive movement and confusion-free wayfinding.
Rethinking interior pedestrian traffic required a complete redesign of spaces built before Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screening became such a large and stressful component of a traveler’s experience. In the old LGA, amenities appeared in pre-security spaces, Forse recalls; one sometimes ate before passing through security, a sequence hardly imaginable in the TSA era. In contrast, the new terminal is “designed for the way air travel occurs today,” reproportioning pre-and post-security spaces to assign nearly all shops, restaurants, and services to the latter.
TSA is centralized and located off the main Departures entrance past 75 check-in counters and 105 self-service kiosks, with state-of-the-art features to smooth the process: dynamic video signage in the queuing area informing passengers of expected wait times, automated baggage screening and tub-handling technology, and 16 screening lanes. Post-TSA recomposure spaces,
a feature that few airports give adequate attention, are generous, with ample seating and tables, easily cleaned carpeting—so that, in Auguste’s words, “you don’t want to go through there like I do and feel like I need to take a shower afterwards”—and a large curtain wall. “All the time the passenger is going through,” he says, “you know exactly where you go when you’re looking through the window at the apron right out front; you have a sense of direction all the time.”
Forse notes that the Port Authority’s master plan calls for a central hall connecting Terminal B to Terminal C (privately owned by Delta Airlines and under separate renovation), with AirTrain access, another long-standing oversight.
New Yorkers and visitors have put up with disruptive site work since 2016, but we put up with the old LGA for much longer. Only time will reveal important metrics such as airline on-time performance, energy consumption, or improvements in accessibility once the AirTrain component is sorted out. Yet it is an excellent time to get used to a novel sensation: having an airport that makes us stop rolling our eyes in exasperation and start lifting them in admiration.