Governor Andrew Cuomo is holding a competition for plans to upgrade New York City’s two airports, which consistently rank as the worst in the U.S. for design, cleanliness and delays.

Cuomo announced the $500,000 design contest for John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports at a press briefing in Queens with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who in February caused a stir when he likened LaGuardia to a facility in a third-world country.

“This is the next phase for New York,” Cuomo said today at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Flushing, home of LaGuardia.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airports, is allocating $8 billion to construction at the two facilities and Newark-Liberty International over the next 10 years. That includes $2.2 billion as part of a $3.6 billion redesign of LaGuardia’s 50-year-old central terminal, voted America’s dirtiest and most poorly designed by readers of Travel & Leisure magazine in 2012.

Contestants will have to show expanded transportation options, improved amenities and larger footprints for both airports, Cuomo said. The governor also wants to turn Stewart International Airport in Orange County, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) north of Manhattan, into a regional cargo hub to take pressure off JFK. He’s also seeking to further develop 100 acres at Republic Airport on Long Island.


LaGuardia, JFK and Newark-Liberty in New Jersey served 54 million departing passengers and handled one-third of the nation’s flights last year. They’re also getting short-changed by the U.S. government, ranking in the top 20 for the least federal funding per passenger, according to an August report by the Global Gateway Alliance, which is made up of representatives from the real estate and hotel industries, and labor.

Biden didn’t address the funding inequity, which the Federal Aviation Administration has defended as necessary to keep less-busy airports alive in remote communities. He did offer praise for Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, saying he’s leading the nation with “big ideas.” Biden, considered a potential presidential candidate, also described the need for improvements in U.S. infrastructure to keep the nation competitive.

No Joke

The two joked about Biden’s comment on LaGuardia. In February while in Philadelphia, Biden said that if he blind- folded someone and took them to the airport in Hong Kong, they’d think they were in the U.S.

“If I took them blindfolded and took them to LaGuardia Airport in New York, he would be like, ‘I must be in some third- world country.’ I’m not joking.”

Cuomo said today the comment was “right enough.”

The 56-year-old governor encouraged private-sector designers submitting proposals to the contest to give “the most creative, wildest thinking that you have.”

Cuomo wants the proposals to show LaGuardia with improved rail access and plans for high-speed ferry service from Manhattan. For JFK, he’s seeking a better transportation network and more hotels and dining options. The Port Authority Board of Commissioners will select the best three designs for each airport, with finalists receiving as much as $500,000 to further develop their plans.

Cuomo also wants to include Stewart and Republic airports as part of a program he created last year to establish tax-free zones. The plan is meant to attract businesses to the third- most-populous state, whose upstate region has been hurt by a loss of manufacturing.

On Oct. 7, Cuomo said he wants the legislature to approve an export-import bank that, combined with the tax-free zones, would help New York tap global markets. Improving the airports is key to making it work, Cuomo said today.

“We must modernize our airports if we want to keep our competitive advantage and grow,” Cuomo said.

–With assistance from Martin Z. Braun in New York.

To contact the reporters on this story: Freeman Klopott in Albany at; Allyson Versprille in New York at To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at 

Photo Credit: LaGuardia's Marine Air Terminal was lovely back in the 1960s. It's been downhill since then. Erin Nekervis / Flickr