Aviation News


An Ode to the Observation Decks at JFK

You might notice the silhouetted figures of several individuals on the roof of the building above and behind the photo of this Pan Am DC-8-33 taken in the 1960’s. They are members of the public enjoying what was once the largest observation deck at JFK International Airport. It encompassed all of the International Arrivals Building (IAB) and its East and West Wing, including piers, for over a decade after the terminal’s opening in 1957.

While the IAB roof was perhaps the most impressive of the Idlewild/Kennedy observation decks it was by no means the only one. In those pre-terrorism days both the Eastern Terminal (on the site of the current Terminal 1) and, later, the BOAC Unit Terminal (the current Terminal 7) had open-air decks. There was also an enclosed viewing area just beneath the cab of the original control tower. This was open to the public until the early 1970s (the author remembers visiting it while a young Port Authority volunteer intern in the mid 1980s. At the time it still had identification photos and descriptions of airliners in use circa 1960 mounted under glass.)

By the 1970s, all that remained of the original IAB deck was a small section in what was called the “center of the U” in the central part of the building across from the control tower. It too was finally closed in the 1980s.

One other excellent place for public observation of JFK flight operations existed after 1973; the rooftop parking lot of the Pan Am “Worldport” terminal, which was the now-demolished Terminal 3. From here there were excellent views all around of takeoffs on the long “Bay Runway” (13R-31L), ramp action at the Pan Am terminal itself, and then the West Wing of the IAB and the Northwest/Delta terminal (now T-2) on either side. As security concerns mounted at Pan Am during the second half of the 1980s, a large fence with panels eliminated the view from the Worldport roof almost entirely.

Today, there is an open-air section of the new Delta Terminal 4 extension, but it is located post-security and open to Delta Sky Club members only. In a sad sign of the times, no dedicated viewing areas remain at John F. Kennedy International, though the developer’s plans for the upcoming TWA Hotel at Terminal 5 include mention of a 10,000 square foot public observation deck.

(Photo by Mel Lawrence, Shea Oakley collection)

About the Author

Shea Oakley
Shea has been a commercial aviation enthusiast from childhood. He first joined the World Airline Historical Society (WAHS) in 1983 at age 15 and in 1987 was co-founder of the Tri-State Airline Historical Society. The following year Shea began the first airline collectibles show held in the New York area, “Airliners Northeast,” at Newark Airport. He has written feature articles on U.S. airline history for Airliners Magazine and is Book Review Editor for the Captain’s Log, the quarterly journal of the WAHS. Shea joined the staff of the Aviation Hall of Fame and Museum of NJ in 2001 and since 2006 he has been the museum’s Executive Director. His latest project is The Commercial Aviation History Consultancy, devoted to fact-checking and research for commercial aviation projects in every form of media.


French Bee A350-900 landing on Runway 24R at LAX during golden hour.

Drumroll Please….. Here’s the dates for #SpotLAX2023!

One of the most common questions we’re asked this time of year is “when will next year’s SpotLAX be held?” In the past, we’ve always waited to announce the dates until late winter. This year, we’re ready to share th...
by Ben Granucci


Our Amazing #SpotLAX2022 Event Returns This September

SpotLAX returns this September, and once again we've partnered with Crankyflier.com to hold both #SpotLAX2022 and #Dorkfest the same weekend.
by Ben Granucci



Announcing Our Plans For #SpotLAX2021

Our #SpotLAX event returns this September in Los Angeles! Read our announcement about the 2021 event and what to expect if you attend.
by Ben Granucci


United Airlines Returns To John F. Kennedy International Airport

United Airlines returned to New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport this past Sunday following a 5 year absence from the airport,
by Eric Dunetz


#SpotLAX2020 Has Been Cancelled. Here’s Why:

Over the past several months, I have wrestled with a difficult decision: whether or not we could safely hold #SpotLAX2020 in September. With different parts of the country experiencing the crisis brought on by COVID-19 differen...
by Ben Granucci


  • Lester Anderson

    Nice article. I remember the observation deck very well. When I frequented it in the 1960’s both IDL (later JFK) and EWR had a 10 cent fee for access. They also had a box that for a quarter you could “hear the control tower” until I realized it was a recording not live.

    I was also in the “audience” (upper gallery) when IDL was dedicated to be JFK. They said they did not have all the letters of the exterior sign that would say John F Kennedy International Airport, but they did unveil the three letters J F K. Ted Kennedy spoke at that event. About 2 years later, I was in a school (a college visit since I was a teaching major) and happened to leaf thru a history book, and saw a picture of the dedication that I attended, and I felt I was way to young to have been present at an event that is published in a history book.

    I remember great hamburgers at the snack bar in the “temporary old terminal” that National used while they built their own terminal.

    I had an even more geometric (I was always a math geek) appreciation of the Eastern terminal. Entry was via ramps, and those ramps of marble (or marble like) were suspended from the ceiling by steel cables and was a great geometric design. I even recall seeing it pictured in one of the geometry books from High School.

    • Shea Oakley

      You would make another good columnist for NYCaviation.com, Lester, in my humble opinion. You know NYC area commercial aviation history and you have a winsome way of communicating it.

      • speedbird1

        Thanks for the great memories Shea. As a youth, I visited the old IAB deck but snuck under the 10 cent turnstile. All I saw was Lufthansa aircraft. Somehow I learned about the Pan Am Roof from somewhere and I fell in love with the views. All operations were visible except for arrivals on Rwy 13L/31R. Air France Concordes, Aeroflot, Tarom, El Al and much, much more. As a bonus, food services and restrooms were just a short elevator ride away. No security guards hassling me except once by El Al as they spotted me changing films hidden under my jacket with the antenna of my scanner in plain sight. All good things must come to an end, After the attack on Pan Am 103, wired-off, visitors no longer were able to visit the Roof and cars were banned as well. I was devastated. I have 100s of photos in storage albums from that place. No place now at JFK welcomes spotters; we get chased away and questioned. When I smell jet fuel I always remember the great times on the Pan Am Roof.

        • Shea Oakley

          My pleasure and you are welcome. I remember being out on that bit of remaining IAB deck one rainy night while waiting to leave on a school trip to Spain in 1983. I still remember the Icelandic DC-8-63 parked right in front of me. I doubt they flew them much beyond that after the Stage 3 noise regs came into effect (on 1/1/85 if I remember correctly). By June of 1984 I was volunteering with the Port Authority JFK Ops Unit and was ramp-side a lot, otherwise I might have personally spent more time on the Pan Am roof. I remember El Al security, that’s for sure. They were stationed in a lot of places in that part of Kennedy. I’d say more about that, but then they’d have to kill me! 😉

          • speedbird1

            I fear the public observation deck at the new TWA Hotel will only be for hotel guests; I cannot see them letting in hundreds of spotters for free. On a different note, do you build and collect model aircraft? Since my stroke, I gave up building models so I must purchase the snap-together models. I am going nuts trying to get models of the KAL and SIA A380s; I have tried everywhere but they are elusive. E Bay has them for hundreds of dollars, beyond my means.

          • Shea Oakley

            Sorry, Speedbird1 (great “handle, btw:) but my models never turned out like the pretty pictures on the box!

  • Alan Dargie

    Such a shame observation decks are rare these days. Also a shame that aircraft are so similar these days! Thanks for your site, just discovered it and I enjoy it!

    • Shea Oakley

      Yes, if I see one more twin-jet, with wing mounted engines, I think I’ll scream.

  • Michael Jay

    I fondly remember my visit to the JFK Control Tower observation deck late one Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1971. No less than eight TWA 747’s were arriving & departing around the TWA terminal and I always wondered how such a small terminal could handle such and onslaught of passengers! The observation deck in the old terminal at Newark airport stretched the length of the terminal and had a equally long wooden bench that seemed straight out of a railroad station. Thankfully some newer airport terminals are including observation decks. My current local airport, Manchester Boston Regional airport has an excellent observation deck in the corner of the main terminal building and another fine observation area outdoors across the field by the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire. Now if they could only build traffic back to 2001 levels…..

    • Shea Oakley

      8 747’s at once at the TWA “Flight Center”…Even with the “Flight Wing One” expansion opened the previous year, and even though 747 load factors were low in 1971, I cannot imagine the chaos.

      The old North Terminal at Newark was a victim of the wrecking ball in 1997.

  • Airport


    GrayMatter Airport Analytics (AA+) solution is game changer that delivers measurable value to airport management teams, covering airport busniess, finance, operations, business intelligence(BI), predictive data analytics.

  • Father Vivian O’Blivion

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/924c4797261fd3043dd65cf1576045a4cb29b90ddc33d0b9862507eed5b819b4.png Ah yes. It was 1963 as we took our first family flight to Ireland. My brother and I found every access stairway to the rooftop! We ran all over that rooftop especially the east side of the International Arrivals Bldg. Aer Lingus had their gates and check-in at that far end. I remember cops chasing us because we were into EVERY nook and cranny! It didn’t stop there as we had family members in San Francisco who also go to Ireland and when they did they would have a lay-over at JFK. My goodness all of us running all over no regard for security.About the only place we didn’t go was onto the ramp proper! It continued till up at least thru 1972 when instead of 707’s we were flying to Dublin on a Aer Lingus 747!

  • A B

    I have a question for all you out there. I’ve seen pictures of the IAB taken in the 60s and there were no jet bridges. When did they install them? I remember flying on Lufthansa in 1971 and we boarded the airplane via a jet bridge. Just curious.
    As a side note. I remember being on the rooftop of the Pan Am terminal in the 70s looking down on the Pan Am jets, dreaming of being in the cockpit of one of those planes. Fast forward to begin of the 90s and I’m at the controls of a Pan Am 727 looking from the cockpit out onto the rooftop from where I looked down and dreamed of being where I was.

    • Jim Moore

      I can relate. In the late 50’s I dreamed of even riding on one of those. I got a job as an agent with Braniff at IDL ( Idlewild, to you newcomers), got all my ratings, and ended up flying them. It was my dream and my life.