Aviation News

October 25, 2012

Delta’s Massive JFK Terminal Upgrade: A Hard Hat Progress Report (With Photos)

Construction workers examine blueprints inside the new Sky Club.
Construction workers examine blueprints inside Delta's new Terminal 4 Sky Club. (Photo by Matt Molnar/NYCAviation)
To many, adding nine measly gates to one of the country’s largest airport terminals might not seem like a big deal. Stretch out the concourse a bit, bolt on a couple of new jetways and you’re good to go, right?

Photos: Delta Terminal 4 Behind the Scenes

Wrong. Delta’s expansion of JFK’s Terminal 4 is a really big deal. About $1 million-a-day big and $1.2 billion overall big. Last week we got to don a hard hat and reflective vest while being escorted behind the construction barriers for a closer look at how work is progressing.

The project is the cornerstone of the airline’s huge expansion and facilities upgrades in New York. Up until now those efforts have been more visible at LaGuardia Airport, where Delta recently took over much of the US Airways terminal and added over 100 daily flights following the slot swap deal between those two airlines.

But JFK has been a Delta hub for years now, and for almost as long, Delta’s Terminals 2 and 3 have been mocked for being cramped, confusing and outdated. Although history buffs wanted to see the preservation of the classic Terminal 3 — originally built for Pan Am in 1960 and known as the Worldport or the Flying Saucer — Delta’s chosen remedy is to add nine gates and expand the capacity of Terminal 4 and, once that’s done, shift Terminal 3′s international operations to the new gates in Terminal 4. Terminal 2 is to remain mostly unchanged as Delta’s domestic terminal, but Terminal 3 will subsequently be torn down and paved over for airplane parking.

Terminal 4 currently handles about 10 million passengers annually for about 30 airlines. Most of those airline tenants are overseas-based carriers that operate only a couple of flights into a day, and a predominant number of the passengers boarding and deboarding those flights are O&D, meaning they’re not connecting to or from other flights. Delta’s operation will be the opposite of that, with many passengers connecting between domestic flights and international flights. While the terminal is fairly new and very modern, it still requires an extensive reconfiguration.

The nine extra gates being added to the southwest end of the terminal’s Concourse B will funnel an additional 5 million passengers through the already well-used terminal. To handle those extra people, the terminal is getting more security screening lanes, more customs and immigration capacity and more check-in desks.

Every day since late 2010, between 950 and 1,000 construction workers have descended on Terminal 4 to get it done. A total of 491,000 square feet of space are being added to the structure. Most of that extra room will be dedicated to the Concourse B extension and its new gates. A new 24,000 square foot Delta Sky Club, the largest in Delta’s network and one of the largest airline lounges at JFK.

The mid-section of the four-story terminal, which was previously open air from the third floor to the fourth, is being covered with floor space. The two security checkpoints (one for each concourse) currently found on the third floor will be condensed to a single, 12-lane setup (with room to eventually expand to 20 lanes if needed) in the new floor space, just past the check-in areas. This means the existing shopping and food concourse, currently open to all, will now be behind security.

“When this terminal was built, the thinking was that before an international flight, passengers would go to the airport with their family a few hours early, eat some dinner and do some shopping, and then say their goodbyes before boarding,” said project director Harry Olsen. But the security screening process has changed significantly since the terminal opened in 2001 — four months prior to the 9/11 attacks. That means customers are now far more anxious about getting through security and to their flight on time, so they want to get through the checkpoint as soon as possible.

For arriving passengers, the terminal’s immigration control facilities will be expanded, from 53 passport control booths to 70. After passing through customs and immigration, passengers arriving on Delta flights from overseas who need to connect to domestic flights will be led through a new recheck area, where they’ll be able to recheck their bags, check connections and catch a bus to Terminal 2.

About those buses. Earlier renderings of the project included a long bridge connecting Terminals 2 and 4. Planners finally decided against it for being too long a walk for passengers, a problem I noted when it first emerged. Instead, buses will run between the terminals airside, which means you don’t have to go through security again.

And back to the new gates again. Many of Terminal 3′s gates are, in a word, tight. Built before the era of jumbo jets, many gates are too small for larger planes, which can cause cascading delays when even just one flight is running late. The new gates in Terminal 4 will handle anything from a CRJ to an A380, allowing for greater flexibility and hopefully fewer waits for a gate after landing.

Another plus will be dual taxiways on the west side of Terminal 4, once Terminal 3 is removed. Currently, the passageway is a single lane which can only handle one plane at a time. The dual taxiways will allow one plane to pull in while another is pulling out, saving everybody time and money.

We’ll hold out on talking up all the passenger experience improvements until the terminal is completed, but the list of amenities — which includes bullet points such as power plugs at 75 percent of gate seats and a dedicated Sky Zone for unaccompanied minors — certainly sounds promising.

According to Olsen — a veteran of such megaprojects including the new Yankee Stadium, the World Financial Center and London’s Canary Wharf — the Terminal 4 expansion phase of the project is running smoothly, with completion expected on-time and under budget in May 2013. Terminal 3 will then be rid of asbestos which will take about nine months, before being demolished in early 2014.

We’re looking forward to the finished product, which we expect will be a tremendous improvement over Terminal 3. In the meantime, check out our Terminal 4 photo gallery, and stay tuned for future progress reports.