Project Management Institute

Great heights



by Ashleigh Braggs

Back in its heyday, the TWA terminal at the John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport in New York, New York, USA was hailed as a modernistic masterpiece. With its gull-winged profile and ultra-futuristic tubular corridors, the building was the epitome of the new age of air travel when it debuted in 1962.

Nearly 40 years later, TWA ceased operations and the terminal closed.

In the meantime, upstart JetBlue Airways was fast making a name for itself—and outgrowing its home at JFK. The obvious choice was the terminal right next door, which just happened to be the former TWA site.

But the project was going to stall on the runway unless the team could figure out a way to reinterpret the TWA building for today’s jet set.

Something Old, Something Blue

Designed by Eero Saarinen, the TWA terminal is considered a landmark of aviation history. It even makes an appearance in the movie Catch Me If You Can.

Although the TWA site had been shuttered since 2001, the main terminal building and two trademark “flight tube” corridors for departures and arrivals had been preserved.

“Everybody recognized the building as a very pretty icon [that] just didn't function for today's airline needs,” says Richard Smyth, JetBlue's vice president for redevelopment.




Stupid or Necessary?

Project plan in place, the team faced some difficult choices. To the dismay of some architecture buffs, the trumpet-shaped departure lounge that sat at the end of one of the tubular corridors was scrapped. Instead, the decision was to focus on preserving the so-called “head house” or main terminal. Frank Sanchis, senior vice president of the Municipal Art Society, blasted it as a “stupid, stupid move” in an interview with Preservation magazine. But Peg Breen, president of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, saw it as a necessary compromise, telling the magazine: “The money really needs to be put into the head house if we're going to find alternative uses for that building. We agree that that is the best use for the money.”

A Compromise

In February 2008, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey approved the US$19 million project that would revamp the TWA terminal as an entryway for the new JetBlue Terminal 5. Looking to complement the older building, the team created a new gateway that stands behind the Saarinen structure.

“Fitting all that in was a real Swiss watch of an operation,” says Tom Kennedy, a project director from New York-based design and consulting firm Arup, which worked with Gensler, DMJM Harris/Aecom and Turner Construction Co. on the project.

Traffic Patterns

“The whole building is designed around customer flow,” says Mr. Kennedy. Using a computer model based on videogaming technology, the design team mimicked how travelers interact.


30 percent The amount of JFK airport's annual traffic Terminal 5 is handling today

Safety First

Launching one of the few new terminals built from scratch after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, JetBlue worked with the U.S. Transportation Security Authority (TSA) early in the process.

A 20-lane security checkpoint—which JetBlue claims is the largest single checkpoint in the country—includes self-selected lanes for families, casual travelers and expert air warriors.

Fellow Travelers

The team conducted two dry runs to test operational readiness. Using pseudonyms and fake boarding passes, JetBlue frequent fliers checked in, found their gates and helped troubleshoot any potential problems before real customers arrived.


Beyond Peanuts

Along with an automated concession system that lets passengers order meals delivered to the gate, the terminal also offers free WiFi. But cool technology aside, functionality took precedent over bells and whistles. “It's important that whatever we put in is reliable,” says Mr. Smyth. “We didn't want to take too much of a risk of putting in new technology that was not tested and proven.”

In the Bag

An inline system automatically X-rays each passenger suitcase without having to remove it from the conveyer belt—allowing the airline to process as many as 4,000 bags per hour.


Cold Feet

At the security checkpoint, where the TSA requires travelers to remove their shoes, JetBlue used floors made of soft rubber for added comfort. There's also a 225-foot (69-meter) bench where travelers can regroup after making their way through security.

“In a lot of airports, TSA comes first and the customer comes second,” says Mr. Kennedy. “TSA should be able to get what they need, but the customer shouldn't have to suffer for it.”

Blue Skies

The US$743 million JetBlue Terminal 5 opened on 22 October. The Saarinen building remains closed to the public, but the Port Authority is reportedly working on renovations and seeking a new tenant for the space. Once that happens, travelers will have the option of reaching the JetBlue terminal via the two restored flight tubes.

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