The man who could save New York’s airports

This story is produced in partnership with PaxEx.Areo - The Business of Passenger Experience

New York City is famous for its airports, and not in a good way. The city’s three main airports – Newark, LaGuardia and JFK – handle north of 100 million passengers annually in facilities that more often than not deliver a subpar passenger experience. Solving that problem rests on the shoulders of Huntley Lawrence, the Director of Aviation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ). Lawrence took over the role in January 2017 and his first year in office showed great progress, but also outright debacles. Speaking at a joint IATA Aviation Day USA/Wings Club event in New York City recently Lawrence admitted the Port Authority’s failings and made grand promises of what the new terminals at all three airports will offer. But can he deliver?

As the operator of one of the world’s busiest airport systems I’m first to admit we haven’t always been up to that task. And I’m here to tell you that’s changed. Starting now…

The days of overcrowding, of endless lines and waiting, of standing in hold rooms with no seats, those days are over. The new terminals we are developing will no longer tolerate substandard conditions. We have to take responsibility for giving away too much license in how our customers are treated.

Construction on the new Newark Terminal 1, set to eventually replace Terminal A, pushes forward. Progress on the new Central Terminal Building at LaGuardia also shows great signs of progress. Passengers aren’t in the new terminal yet, but the construction appears to be holding to schedule.

These are the projects Lawrence is so proud of, but are they enough? Outgoing Airbus Americas President & CEO Barry Eccleston was more than a little skeptical.

It seems to me that all this work going on at LaGuardia right now, in a few years time, will simply give me somewhere more comfortable to sit while I’m waiting for my airplane that cannot get in because there’s not enough runway space. And if it has landed there is no gate for it anyways. This all assumes that the air traffic control system, which is 50% undermanned in the New York TRACON, can actually bring the airplane in from Washington or Los Angeles or wherever. This illustrates the size of the problem. It is not just a question of [Lawrence] deciding the Port Authority should improve LaGuardia.

The JFK Connundrum

PANYNJ Aviation Director Huntley Lawrence addressing the Wings Club IATA Aviation Day USA event in New York City
PANYNJ Aviation Director Huntley Lawrence addressing the Wings Club IATA Aviation Day USA event in New York City (Image: IATA)

And then there is JFK Airport. In January Lawrence and the Port Authority watched as a snow storm crippled operations at the field. Even worse was the impact as planes started landing again, facing a shortage of gates and multi-hour waits on the tarmac. Lawrence alluded to that incident, suggesting that a major part of the problem was that the Port Authority lacked communication from the airlines to know that the planes were stranded, “I need to know if a plane is stuck on the tarmac for an extended period of time. I have buses and staff and an action plan for assisting. But I need information to take action.” He also suggested that he needed terminal operators to inform the PANYNJ of facilities outages so that elevators and escalators could be repaired. That assertion flies in the face of past performance by the Agency when it comes to resolving longstanding maintenance issues. Suggesting that the Port Authority lack of awareness of those problems – whether informed by the airlines, terminal operators or passengers – and that’s why they remain unresolved is specious.

Taking back control

One of the biggest problems during the January snow storm was a lack of available gates in some terminals while other facilities sat idle. That is a function of the public/private partnership arrangement the PANYNJ has with the terminal operators and their exclusive contracts. In the clean up of that incident this issue was theoretically addressed; if the Agency wants to override those rules it now believes that’s viable. This is just one small part of taking back control of the passenger experience.

No one ever dreamed that meant we would abdicate control of the customer experience at our airports. But we did. Those days are over.

But will it work?

Ultimately Lawrence believes that more data will give him the ability to reassign gates or slots, to make sure that flights are available to the wide variety of destinations passengers demand. And he was not shy about calling on the airline attendees at the event to help on that front.

I need, no, I crave transparency in the way we operate. I need a transparent process that gives me solid, current information from airlines. How are they using their slots? Even more basic, are they using their slots?

And data is great. That data will inform decision processes and drive improvements. Or it will languish in disparate silos and report after report, with no real action taken to address the core issues facing the airports and the region. The construction is happening at LaGuardia and Newark so at least some progress is being made. But will it be enough improvement and sufficiently quickly?  Only time will tell.

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