LaGuardia Airport's Central Terminal, with its low ceilings, dim lighting and cramped spaces, will undergo a $3.6-billion renovation that the head of the Port Authority says will bring the aging facility out of the 1960s and into the 21st century.
The terminal project, expected to start in 2014 and last as long as eight years, also will allow the airport to accommodate more large planes -- the only way it can handle a projected growth in passengers, said Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, which manages LaGuardia, Kennedy and Newark Liberty airports.
"We're looking for a modern design that's going to rise to the expectations of travelers," Foye said. "It's going to be bright and airy, with lots of light. It will be significantly larger."
LaGuardia's biggest asset may be its convenience for passengers going to and from New York City. But the Central Terminal, which handles most of the airport's passengers, offers little comfort or style. Its concourses are dark, narrow and crowded. A travel magazine's readers recently ranked LaGuardia as the worst major airport in the United States.
"Utilitarian and functional" was the highest praise Foye could offer about LaGuardia. "It's too small."
Without more large-capacity planes, the airport won't be able to handle the estimated 6 million more passengers in the next 20 years, Foye said.
The airport's projected growth demands that planning for changes to the facility start now, he said, but federal airspace regulations and the airport's location limit expansion options.
Federal Aviation Administration flight caps limit the number of arrivals and departures the airport can handle in one hour, so adding more flights isn't an option.
New runways unlikelyExpanding or building new runways also is unlikely -- LaGuardia is surrounded by residential and commercial development on one side, and Flushing and Bowery bays on the other.
The only option for growth is larger planes to carry more people, Foye said.
"The Central Terminal building was built for a different era," he said. "It wasn't built to accommodate the number of people it serves. It was built to accommodate smaller aircraft. As a result, the customer experience isn't what it ought to be."
Travel + Leisure Magazine last month called LaGuardia "dilapidated" and its reader survey ranked the facility as the worst airport of the country's 22 largest. Readers placed it at the bottom of the list for check-in and security, baggage handling, wireless access, staff communication, design and cleanliness.
"It's not my impression of a world-class airport," Steve Rainey, 55, of Wisconsin, said last week while waiting for a flight.
Foye said LaGuardia's Central Terminal is forecast to handle 17.5 million passengers annually by 2030. Last year, 11.5 million passengers passed through the Central Terminal. It was designed for 8 million, Foye said.
Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is the country's busiest, with more than 43 million passengers boarding planes there in 2010, FAA reports said. It was followed by Chicago O'Hare, Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver and Kennedy. LaGuardia ranked 20th.
Proposals soughtThe Port Authority in January sought ideas for updating the Central Terminal. The agency received 15 proposals from 37 firms, which Foye called "strong private-sector interest" in remaking LaGuardia. Details of the suggestions have not been released.
The agency expects to select a design plan and issue a formal request for proposals for construction next year, Foye said.
"If this proceeds as we expect, the Central Terminal [renovation] could begin late in 2014," he said.
Construction is expected to last four years, with the full development taking six to eight years. Renovating the Central Terminal is estimated to cost $2.4 billion. Plans call for the Port Authority to raise that money from private investment firms, as it did for the construction of Terminal 4 at Kennedy Airport in the late 1990s. They profit through rents and other revenue at the terminal.
The remaining $1.2 billion -- from Port Authority funding and federal airport improvement grants -- will go toward a new parking garage, a new electrical substation and roadway improvements.
Jeff Raven, a Manhattan architect who helped develop a design plan for Newark Liberty Airport's expansion and modernization, said LaGuardia's plan should include a rail link. LaGuardia relies on an "over emphasis on airport automobile access and egress," he said.
More options to transport people -- moving sidewalks and "intuitive" connections among parking areas, terminals and public transit -- need to be integrated into any new terminal, Raven said.
LaGuardia's other renovation project -- constructing a walkway to connect Terminals C and D -- is being paid for by Delta Air Lines. The $160 million project was announced April 11.
Expansions at JFKAt Kennedy, Delta is spending $1.2 billion for the expansion and renovation of Terminal 4. In October 2008, JetBlue unveiled a renovated Terminal 5 at Kennedy.
What was originally called New York Municipal Airport-LaGuardia Field opened in 1939 as the first modern air travel facility in the New York City region. The Central Terminal was dedicated on April 17, 1964. It was last renovated in the 1980s, when Robert Aaronson was the Port Authority's director of aviation.
"It's a cyclical process," Aaronson, now retired, said of airport renovations. "In New York, it's a shorter life cycle because there are so many passengers going through."
Despite the Central Terminal's tired condition, New Yorkers will always have a fondness for LaGuardia, Aaronson said.
"They love it," he said, adding that if the airport -- 8 miles from Manhattan -- were targeted for closure, "it would be the biggest cause celebre you could imagine."
Not all travelers are as enamored with the airport.
"There's no place to spread out," said Burt Wagner of Wisconsin, sitting in the Central Terminal's food court last week. "When the weather gets bad, there's no place for anybody."
With US Airways' and Delta Air Lines' daily shuttle flights to and from Washington and Boston, LaGuardia is a favorite of business and political travelers, attracting the rich and powerful, and putting any renovation or improvement project under a powerful microscope.
"LaGuardia is an incredibly important airport, not just for New York," said Foye, who grew up in Jackson Heights, a short distance from the airport. "It can be better and has to be better."