There could be turbulence for travelers during the multibillion dollar renovation of New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Vice President Joe Biden said the aging LaGuardia reminded him of a “Third World country” — and that was before a massive traffic tie-up related to a $4 billion overhaul prompted passengers to abandon their cabs and cars and walk to the terminals.
Officials at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport, say they hope not to repeat the debacle of last Monday, when Twitter was flooded with images of bedraggled travelers hauling children and suitcases along the Grand Central Parkway because private cars and taxis couldn’t get anywhere near the departures area to drop them off.
“Monday was a very challenging day for us,” Richard Smyth, the Port Authority executive in charge of the LaGuardia renovation, acknowledged Thursday.
The redevelopment of the airport that serves 28 million passengers a year started this summer with the demolition of a parking garage where a new main terminal will be built and the realignment of roads to make way for a new parking garage. Smyth said the road realignment was one factor in Monday’s chaos, but others included backed up air traffic because of bad weather Sunday and a security breach that forced a lockdown of the main terminal.
Going forward, Smyth said the authority hopes to alleviate traffic congestion through measures like promoting bus service to LaGuardia and encouraging passengers to use a remote drop-off lot with shuttle service to the departure area.
“Our goal is, No. 1, to work in such a way that Monday’s events do not happen,” he said.
But critics say the Port Authority must do more to ensure that the airport functions smoothly during the prolonged redevelopment.
“They’re just not doing a very good job right now, the traffic situation is spiraling out of control,” said Joe Sitt, chairman of the Global Gateway Alliance, which advocates for improving air transportation in New York and New Jersey.
Sitt said the Port Authority must keep travelers informed about buses to LaGuardia and parking options if they choose to drive, preferably with an app that would provide real-time traffic data. “They need to do a better job of promoting the alternatives that they’re already talking about,” he said.
A Port Authority spokeswoman said the airport’s website is updated regularly and alerts about flight and traffic delays are sent via social media.
It was during a 2014 speech about the nation’s crumbling infrastructure that Biden, a Democrat, said that if a blindfolded man were brought to LaGuardia he would think he was in “some Third World country.”
Biden later joined New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat, for last June’s ceremonial groundbreaking for the $4 billion LaGuardia upgrade.
The new 1.3 million-square-foot central terminal with 35 gates, a new parking garage and connection to trains and subways is scheduled for completion by 2022.
The consortium that’s building the new terminal, LaGuardia Gateway Partners, has promised a smooth transition from the old facility to the new one.
“Our objective is to preserve and improve the passenger experience throughout construction,” said Stewart Steeves, the CEO of the consortium.
The new main terminal will be moved 600 feet from the footprint of the existing facility to give planes more acreage at the cramped airport.
Steeves said there have been “teething challenges” as the roads are realigned but steps are being taken to make the traffic patterns more manageable, such as synchronizing stoplights and placing traffic officers at key junctions.
But Monday’s gridlock left some travelers skeptical.
Faith Reel, who works for a talent scout agency, said she flies into and out of LaGuardia as often as once a week, but she may switch to Newark or Kennedy next time.
Reel said she arrived at LaGuardia from a trip to Minnesota on Monday and her husband tried to pick her up as usual. “He couldn’t get to me,” she said. “He would get to a ramp and they would close it randomly.”
Reel said she joined hundreds of other travelers pulling their luggage outside of the airport toward Queens streets and trying to catch a cab or connect with a ride. “It wasn’t safe at all,” she said.
Two days after Monday’s chaotic scene at LaGuardia, the Transportation Security Administration issued an advisory recommending that the airport’s travelers arrive at least 2 to 2 ½ hours before their scheduled departures.
Sitt said LaGuardia passengers shouldn’t have to arrive 2½ hours before their flights.
“A lot of the flights at LaGuardia are an hour, hour and a half,” he said. “You’re doubling the amount of travel time. You’re supposed to make it easier for folks to travel in the modern era, not make it more difficult.”