Behind the scenes at JetBlue’s new JFK T5 terminal

JetBlue has been working for several years on the construction of a new flagship terminal at JFK airport in New York, rebuilding TWA’s old T5 into a modern and grand facility to handle the bulk of their New York operations. They are ~3 months away from completing construction, and I managed to wrangle a tour of the facility for a group of folks from FlyerTalk.

Before I get into the details of the actual tour, I want to give a HUGE thanks to the folks at JetBlue for actually making this possible. They realize the value of word-of-mouth marketing to their brand and this event certainly allowed for a group of us to see what the new facility will look like and how things will operate and to share that with the rest of you. So, without further ado, the tour…
The original T5 terminal at JFK was built as TWA’s Trans World Flight Center and designed by Eero Saarinen. The building is a landmark and an iconic piece of architecture. Fortunately, the original building is being kept rather than torn down. There are no specific plans yet for what will be in the Saarinen building when it does finally open. The bulk of the actual construction work is happening a couple hundred feet behind that building in the new facility.

Gearing up with hard hats and vests:

This is a view land-side of the main departures area. It is huge. I think that end to end is something like a thousand feet, with soaring ceilings and lots of windows to let in natural light. At either end of the departures area there are check-in facilities. They’ve doubled the number of positions from the existing T6 facility, both in terms of self-service kiosks and human-operated stations. The goal is zero queuing for check-in and bag drop, even at peak operation times where they see 3200 bags/hour processed by their systems (more on that below).

Some folks from the group while we were in the elevated passageway connecting the new terminal to the AirTrain and parking garages. Also during this part of the tour one of the interesting (to me) statistics came out: 35% of their passengers arrive from the AirTrain or parking garage while 65% are dropped off on the curb. I have no idea why those numbers seem to matter to me, but they do. The guy in the orange vest is Jeff, JetBlue’s Director of Reconstruction. He’s the guy responsible for this whole deal. It was great to have him giving us the tour and sharing the various details on the build-out.

The new terminal is going to have one of the largest TSA screening facilities in the country. They are building it with 20 lanes, 15 of which will have equipment installed on day one. The TSA space is the size of a football field (340′ long). They will be implementing the self-selecting lane system for families/casual travelers/experts, a system that hasn’t really proven to be all that useful in the other cities where it has been implemented, but here’s hoping. They’ve also made some specific design changes for the family lanes, including making them wider to accommodate strollers and the like. That seems like a good idea to me.

We cleared the TSA area and went into the main terminal area. The terminal is built as three spokes radiating from the central marketplace area. They’ve got a bunch of great concessions signed up for the new space, including a Dunkin Donuts and the sushi place is moving over from the old terminal. The main area will have 800 seats for customers and they’re keeping the free WiFi throughout the terminal just like they have at T5.

Walking through the space I kept an eye out for power outlets. Without the power outlets the free WiFi is a mixed bag of benefit and problem. There are definitely some outlets around the gate areas, and there was mention of the Samsung charging towers being installed throughout the terminal as well. Hopefully that will be enough power, though I’m not completely sure that it will be. Then again, I’d like to see power at every seat, so maybe my expectations are a bit unrealistic there.

We also walked through the gate areas on two of the three piers. There are ~100 seats per gate area, which is sufficient based on average loads for flights, but only if people actually fill all the seats. It seems to be human nature to not sit right next to someone else in airport waiting areas, so I’m guessing that the gate lounges are going to seem too small for their needs. Then again, there is the central marketplace and other areas, so there should be enough seats somewhere in the facility. At least I hope so.

The Central (East) pier has gates on both sides and also has tons of natural light thanks to the skylights that were installed. Even on a somewhat gray day there was lots of light installed. And from the end of that pier you can look out on the intersection of two active runways, which is great for folks who want to watch the planes.

After walking through the terminal we headed outside and walked back in at ground level

They’ve built the jetways offset from the main building, leaving a 2-lane road for luggage tugs and other various vehicles. This will actually reduce the traffic around the planes and make things operate more smoothly at ground level.
The baggage sorting facility is pretty impressive. We couldn’t take pictures inside the TSA part of the facility, but we were allowed to snap a few while in the main sorting area. There are a dozen belts that are used for baggage “make-up” where the bags come out of security and are sorted for which plane they are headed to. The whole thing is automated except for the part where the bags are actually loaded onto the tugs.

The TSA screening room is running at 4000 bags/hour thanks to 10 CTX9000 machines and a crazy network of belts. The CTX machines are able to scan and clear about 80% of the bags without any human intervention. Another 10% are cleared by a human viewing the X-ray image on screen and the final 10% require the bag to actually be pulled out and manually searched. From there they make it back out into the sorting facility and then on to the planes.

Baggage claim is also enormously improved in the new facility. There are 6 baggage claim carousels. Each one is expected to be able to handle 3 flights without any trouble. And each has a dedicated loading belt on the secure side, so no chances of bags getting lost between the plane and the claim.

We asked a lot of questions during the event, about the TrueBlue program, future growth and various other topics. I won’t bore you with all the details here; feel free to check out the Q&A in this thread for more details. That being said, one other big number that was tossed out during the tour was a reference to the cost of starting up the LAX service that has now been postponed. The cost to JetBlue for launching that service was $11MM. That is a pretty big amount of money that they decided to save and put into fuel costs and other expenses.

Again, a huge thanks to Dave, Fiona, Jeff, Bryan, Ryan, Mary and all the other JetBlue Crew Members who worked to put this event together for us and so graciously hosted us and put up with all our questions.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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