Coming home to a Third World airport

In several recent posts, I extolled the virtues of Hong Kong, where everything worked well everywhere, and I took it for granted. Arriving back in the USA from that trip, the first thing I noticed getting off the well-maintained Cathay Pacific plane at JFK Terminal 8 was a broken, very long escalator up to Immigration and Customs.  The steep stairs were not inviting; many passengers opted for the adjacent sluggish and spasmodic elevator, backing it up. I had already noted the crummy, rundown look of Terminal 8 as we traipsed through.

Changing terminals to my connecting flight at Delta in Terminal 4, the jerky, slow and dirty JFK AirTrain was an embarrassment after the precision of public transportation in Hong Kong. Then I endured the inefficient, cartoonish TSA screeners at Delta (in the PRE line, no less), followed by bypassing many broken moving sidewalks in terminal 4. I didn’t see anyone servicing any of them, either.

This situation is even more shocking when considering that JFK Terminal 8 is the newest facility, and Terminal 4 is run by Schiphol, the well-regarded Dutch airport (Amsterdam).

At JFK Terminal 7, TSA finally gave British Airways PreCheck, yet there is no PRE line at Terminal 7 because it is so degraded as a facility.

The obvious blame would seem to lie with the Port Authority of NY/NJ, which also manages LaGuardia and Newark Airports, two other New York-area airports infamous for being ugly, rundown, and inefficient.

My hometown Raleigh/Durham International Airport hosts daily nonstops to London and Paris CDG, which add to its nearly 12,000,000 annual passengers.  We are a small-fry airport compared to JFK’s 60 million passengers per year, but the RDU facility is pristine and the operation runs like a Swiss watch.

Arriving in the Big Apple’s premier airport, JFK, America’s gateway airport to the world, it shouldn’t feel like a Third World experience compared to where I left.  Where is good old American outrage at the state of our crumbling infrastructure?  Why do we tolerate these substandard conditions?

5 thoughts on “Coming home to a Third World airport

  1. In the case of the NY Metro Area – We have 3 major airports. JFK while the largest is always treated like the odd one out. From a runway perspective, it’s superior by far to the others and will continue to be. LGA which will get a shiny new terminal will still be limited to impossibly short, limited runways that cross each other. EWR is already at capacity, and more expensive to fly from than the others at most times.
    Why JFK is treated poorly is because it has no competition. Where else are New Yorkers going to go? HPN, SWF, ISP are all bit players. They may connect in other countries…

    When you look at the future of long haul Aviation, the aircraft makers have already decided that smaller (e.g. 787, A350) long haul aircraft will lighten the needs for the JFK’s of the world. This will result in new routes that will bypass many large airports.

    HKG, like ICN, SIN, BKK, TPE and others are gateways to Asia. They all compete with each other in many ways. They all serve their cities, but are also seen as strategic to their futures. They all are fighting to stay on top, using service as their yardstick. It’s a good day if you need to connect in these places.

    Most USA residents have never seen an airport like HKG. Only 36% have passports, and less than 10% travel using passports at all. If they saw the world, they’d realize that places in Asia are coming up in the world and we are not.

  2. Had to chuckle with head nodding side-to-side, in total agreement on the author’s JFK arrival experience.

    Had he arrived at T4, he would have shaken his head, too, at the collection of non-moving conveyor walkways, on the very long walk from B38 to Immigration and Customs, which have been still since at least last May.

    Then, upon arriving at the Immigration stockade, he would have marveled at the rude, barely understandable contract employees, whose first language definitely is not English, corralling hapless
    travelers into T4’s poorly-ventilated hall of mass confusion, before they scrum to receive their official, checkpoint welcome to the USA. What a lousy first impression of our country!

    Whoever benefits from receiving passenger fees can and should serve everyone who transits T4 better. As a possible consolation, the Delta experience, for the most part, is more efficient, if not especially more polite. After all, it’s Noo Yawk.

  3. Ha Ha! my husband, who works in the city, used to think the Chinese tourists got off the bus marveling at the sights of New York. Having been to China he now takes a look at their faces and sees bewilderment. We went a couple of years ago, the subways are shiny, they inform riders at all points as to where to exit etc, time of the next train, awesome wifi onboard. The infrastructure is so well thought out, even for non Mandarin speakers that we could get around with little problem. I can’t even fathom out the transfer system from regular buses to express in NYC and we live in NJ! Yes, China has its challenges but getting around is pretty slick.

  4. If only the crumbling infrastructure was limited to the 3 New York area airports. It’s the entire country….roads, bridges, utilities and don’t even start about our national train service (that makes one long for Conestoga wagons). if you’re searching for a possible reason, please keep in mind that Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop-Grumman and Boeing all have executives who need paid and shareholders who need to see big profits. The US is first and foremost an endless war country that seems to benefit just a few. Quality of life for us citizens and visitors to this country, well, who’s got the money for that?

  5. While many of your comments are spot on, Will, I wouldn’t share your perspective about Terminal 8 being rundown. That doesn’t mean it’s without problems. Why there’s as long a walk as it is to most of the gates–up and down escalators in the same trip–is beyond me and a missed opportunity. There’s also a paucity of decent food options, especially compared to Terminal 4. I have also not found any cleanliness issues on the AirTrain.
    However, I’m often annoyed by the TSA screeners in Terminal 4, which I fly out of several times a month. Some are chill, others make up rules on the spot. I’ve complained and only received rote responses.
    However, to your point about the superiority of airports like HKG and SIN, no question, especially the latter. Having just gone through the new Terminal 4 there, it was like I had stepped into an airport fantasyland. You realize the possibilities. At the same time, you have to acknowledge that it’s more easily done when a nation has but one airport to focus on and no red tape to cut through. In the U.S., we have 400 airports, most of which need TLC and nobody to pay for it all.
    And we won’t get started on the lousy mass transit options at the NY airports. No one-seat ride from the city. And there never will be.

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