LGA Is A Fourth World Airport

by John Delach

I’ve analyzed the newly proposed plan to reconstruct and resurrect LaGuardia Airport from the horrible condition that it has sunk into and I say with absolute candor, “You can’t shine s***!”


The existing facilities are overcrowded, worn down and broken. The main terminal, now known as Terminal B, opened fifty-one years ago in 1964 in a much quieter era before the 727 and the DC-9 revolutionized domestic air transportation. Terminal B was designed to have flights arrive and depart from four separate wings that connected to various areas in the main building. Security was minimal back in the day and each wing had its own security check-point. I always understood that if you had to transfer from one to another, you had to exit the secure section and be screened all over again. Today, in our post-September 11, 2001 atmosphere, this enhanced process is a logistical nightmare. That was my understanding but it turned out not to be the case.


My cousin, Bill, recently made two trips from Texas to LaGuardia. His first round trip was on American. On the return leg the airline changed his gate from C-4 to A-12 after the TSA had cleared him and he arrived at the original designated gate. He told me, “I did not want to go through that barbaric process again so I asked a Port Authority cop if there was a way to avoid it?”


“Yes,” the cop replied and directed me to a non-descript door. “Go down the stairs and a van will take you to Wing A.”


“He must have called ahead because no alarm went off when he opened the door and when I reached the bottom there was a driver waiting for me. After driving me to the correct wing, he watched me very carefully to be sure I entered the right stairwell. I climbed the stairs and out another unalarmed door although there may have been a guard nearby.”


Just one example of how broken this airport is. But the overwhelming issue is LaGuardia cannot be fixed. I remember a flight from DFW to LGA years ago. I was sitting next to a young man, a new flyer on his first flight. Understandably excited and scared, he asked me what the takeoff will be like. “Oh that will be as easy as can be. The runways at this airport are about 12,000 feet long. There are separate runways for take-off and landings that are widely spaced and the pilots have all the room they need.”


He looked too relieved for his own good so I continued, “The problem will be landing at LaGuardia; that will be like trying to put the airplane down on to a postage stamp.”


To make sure he understood, I pointed the field out to him as we banked over Flushing Meadows Park. My reward was watching his eyes grow to the size of silver dollars.


The site for LaGuardia Airport was originally picked to be convenient to Manhattan and be accessible to both land and sea planes. At the time Imperial (British Airways) and Pan American Airways were the primary trans-Atlantic carriers and both operated multiple engine flying boats on their overseas routes.


Hence LaGuardia sits on a peninsula with water on three sides, the East River, Bowery Bay and Flushing Bay. Over time the airport has been expanded and been manipulated as much as humanly possible. The land side is locked in behind the Grand Central Parkway along its entire length and three residential communities, East Elmhurst, Corona and Jackson Heights. About half the airport was originally built on top of semi-stable fill requiring a dike and pumps to keep it from flooding during high tides.


The two runways are perpendicular to each other and can only be used one at a time. They were extended to 7,500 feet in length in the mid-1960s to meet the minimum distances needed by medium size jets for takeoff and landing. These extensions were erected on two massive concrete piers strong enough to take the shocks of countless aircraft touching down.


Scary enough but there is more. Only one end of one runway has overshoot protection; i.e. an area to stop an airplane in an emergency. On two others, the water is the only choice and the last, the parkway.


In closing, the most modern terminals, transportation hubs, air control systems or travel amenities can do nothing to alleviate what ills LGA.


My suggestion, have pilots change their announcements to: “Ladies and gentlemen we are cleared for landing / takeoff and now, let us pray.”