Traveling Through New York’s JFK Airport Is About to Get a Lot More Complicated
Starting this month, work gets underway on a massive $19 billion overhaul of the sprawling facility. These are the changes and disruptions those flying through John F. Kennedy International Airport can expect.
Anyone who has ever commuted to an airport in New York City is familiar with the famously snarled roadways one has to endure to get there. And ongoing construction projects haven’t helped. Remember the epic gridlock during the building of the “new” LaGuardia, when scenes of passengers exiting their cars on the parkways and racing on foot to catch their flights went viral?
Well, officials at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) say they do remember that nightmare, and they’re working to avoid a repeat as the Big Apple’s international hub gets its own Cinderella treatment.
“We aren’t waiting to react to problems, we are working to get ahead of them,” says Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates both JFK and LaGuardia. “We are applying lessons learned from [LaGuardia] to minimize as much as possible any inconvenience to passengers at JFK.”
Any inconvenience, though, may be felt as early as this month, when work begins on a massive $19 billion overhaul of the sprawling facility (by contrast, LaGuardia’s cost a mere $8 billion). The current number of six separate terminals will shrink to four, anchored by two new complexes at either end of the airport, in what’s being billed as “one unified Kennedy Airport”—a goal that has eluded the airport’s planners for much of its 75-year history.
However, some observers are skeptical about the forthcoming changes. “There will still be separate buildings that don’t get connected up inside security and that are as tough to get to as ever” on clogged roads from the city, says travel expert Gary Leff, founder of the View from the Wing blog. “The things that are most important in an airport—getting somewhere, as quickly as possible—aren’t likely made better by this investment.”
On top of that, the project is getting under way just as JFK officials are preparing for a surge in international travelers during the peak summer 2023 travel season, with bookings and demand reaching—and even exceeding—prepandemic levels, according to major international airlines, and with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warning of a shortage of air traffic controllers in the New York area. In other words, things could get interesting.
What to expect at JFK Airport in 2023 and beyond
Up until now, JFK airport has consisted of a (sometimes confusing) set of six terminals, numbered 1 through 8—terminals 3 and 6, built by Pan Am and National Airlines, respectively, were demolished more than a decade ago.
While in size JFK has been surpassed by behemoth international hubs like Beijing and Dubai, the airport is still served by 70 airlines and is expected to welcome more than 60 million passengers this year.
As part of the ambitious and costly project for “A New JFK,” terminals 2 and 7 (formerly occupied by Delta Air Lines and British Airways, respectively) will be demolished. And at the south side of JFK will be a new Terminal 1 for major tenants including Air France, Lufthansa and JAL, that will eventually be connected to an expanded Terminal 4, home to Delta, and dozens of foreign flag carriers.
At the other end of the airfield, a new Terminal 6 will rise next to JetBlue Airways’ Terminal 5 base. American Airlines’ expanded digs in Terminal 8 now include flights on its partner British Airways and that carrier’s bespoke lounges.
Changes at JFK’s Terminals 1 and 2 (Air France, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines, Korean, and Turkish Airlines)
The main projects affecting travelers will be the area around the new Terminal 1, where construction and demolition will get under way this summer, replacing the existing Terminal 1 that’s home to major tenants Air France, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines (JAL), and Korean, as well as Terminal 2, which was used by Delta for some domestic operations but is now empty and preparing for a date with the wrecking ball. The $9.5 billion new terminal will, at 2.4 million square feet, be more than twice the size of the terminals it is replacing and as big as all of the new LaGuardia. The majority of the new gates and concourse will open in 2026, but the entire project won’t be finished until 2030.
When the new Terminal 1 is completed, one big difference from the current setup is that it will be more open and airy, featuring a center spine of skylights providing daylight throughout the terminal’s interiors. There will also be more than 300,000 square feet of dining, retail, lounges, and additional amenities. And upon exiting the baggage claim hall—with soaring ceilings—all transportation options will be accessed through a 100-foot-deep landscaped “park portal,” offering “an immersion in nature before the next stage of the journey,” according to a statement from Gensler, the architecture firm that designed the new structure.
The aim of the new Terminal 1 is to “redefine the guest experience,” says a spokesperson for Gensler. The new terminal will also serve as a model for sustainable development, according to the firm, with green energy and carbon reduction initiatives, such as a new microgrid consisting of more than 13,000 solar panels (reportedly the largest rooftop solar array in New York City and at any airport) that will allow the terminal to maintain full operations during power disruptions.
Changes at JFK’s Terminal 4 (Delta and numerous international carriers)
Other projects include a nearly finished expansion to Terminal 4, home to Delta Air Lines and dozens of foreign flag lines (from Air India to Virgin Atlantic). The terminal expansion adds 10 new gates to Terminal 4, primarily serving regional and domestic flights.
Changes at JFK’s Terminals 5 and 6 (JetBlue)
The other spot to watch is the new Terminal 6, where JetBlue will be the main airline tenant; it will be connected to Terminal 5 next door once the brand-new gates and complexes start opening, also in 2026. That could mean more than two years of disruption around these two terminals. The main change to note as of press time is that at Terminal 5, due to the construction at Terminal 6 next door, the taxi stand is being moved farther from the main facility to the ground level of the Yellow parking garage. For-hire vehicle pickups, including rideshare services, will be relocated to the roof of the Orange garage, one AirTrain stop away at Terminal 7.
Changes at JFK’s Terminal 8 (American and British Airways)
At American Airlines’ Terminal 8, where British Airways recently shifted its operations from Terminal 7 (which is set to be demolished in several years), work was recently completed on new facilities like expanded lounges and five additional gates for wide-body aircraft.
Changes to JFK’s AirTrain and roadways
Among the transit disruptions, JFK’s AirTrain (a light-rail connector that travels between the terminals, parking lots, rental car area, and the New York City subway and Long Island Railroad lines) has closed the Terminal 1 station for the next seven months; instead, a shuttle bus will transfer passengers to and from Terminal 4 and Terminal 8 where they can pick up the AirTrain.
Additionally, some roadways are being shifted around the main construction points, creating new traffic patterns that drivers may not be familiar with.
How JFK plans to help travelers navigate the changes
Port Authority officials insist they are ready for the big adjustments and to assist travelers getting to and through the airport. The airport is setting up large digital information screens around the roadways to broadcast the specific conditions at each terminal for those arriving by car that will reflect real-time updates. An Airport Operations Center staffed by law enforcement, project engineers, and terminal staff will be keeping tabs on all road and terminal frontage around the clock. “We will be monitoring airport traffic 24/7,” a Port Authority spokesperson said. If, for example, the departure ramp at a given terminal is backed up, motorists will be directed to use the arrivals level instead.
To help fliers survive the crush, JFK officials provide the following tips:
- Check JFKAirport.com or @JFKairport on Twitter, and sign up for the Port Authority’s e-Alerts for traffic updates.
- Prebook parking and use cell phone lots for passenger pickups.
- If you can, avoid the roads altogether and take public transportation, which will be easier now with a new AirTrain connection through Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan.