The battle over plans for a hulking new building that would envelope Eero Saarinen's iconic TWA terminal at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport has the trappings of a classic preservation-versus-progress tussle. There are the scrappy activists, the plodding bureaucracy, and the heartless corporation.
But wait: The "heartless corporation" is JetBlue Airways Corp., the heretofore do-no-wrong upstart airline whose phenomenal success has been precisely a function of its disregard for the out-of-touch practices of lumbering old-guard competitors. JetBlue has fashionable flight-attendant uniforms. The company does most of its ticketing through its Web site. And its fares are dirt cheap.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's $1 billion terminal-redevelopment project at Kennedy (of which JetBlue plans to pay about half) calls for a new 48-to-51-gate building that would surround the existing Saarinen building, leaving it mostly intact. However, neither the Port Authority nor JetBlue knows what will become of the structure, except that it most likely won't be used in any future airline operations. JetBlue and Port Authority officials talk vaguely about a possible conference center or a shopping area. This sort of cart-before-the-horse thinking was what landed Saarinen's terminal on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of most endangered historic places earlier this year. While speaking to the National Press Club in late May, Peter Brink, senior vice president of the National Trust, called the proposed plan a "quasi-demolition."
JetBlue has met with the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), the preservation group leading the charge against the Port Authority's design, four times since July to review alternative plans for the terminal—to little avail. "At the end of this process, I don't know that all sides will be happy with the final plan. They may be satisfied but not happy," says Richard Smyth, JetBlue's vice president for redevelopment.
Smyth admits that restoring the building to its former glory would be much more in keeping with JetBlue's culture. But the curving modernist building, which Saarinen designed in the late 1950s, posed operational problems for TWA from the day it opened in 1962, Smyth says. The form is beautiful. But persistent human bottlenecks have always plagued the terminal, he explains. It's a situation that would only worsen in today's maximum-security climate.
And by most indications, JetBlue will require a lot more in the way of function. The airline, which now operates about 50 planes, has placed orders for approximately 250 more by the end of the decade. Most of them are putatively based at Kennedy. For the past year, JetBlue has been one of the few airlines (along with Southwest) to maintain profitability. Indeed, JetBlue may be the only carrier in a position to preserve the terminal in any form. The Port Authority says no airline expressed interest in taking over the terminal as is after TWA moved out in 2001. United Airlines was to be the flagship tenant of a redesigned structure, but that plan was scuttled just before United filed for Chapter 11 in 2002.
Frank Sanchis, MAS's executive director, says the Port Authority and JetBlue should still consider rehabbing the original Saarinen building to make it serviceable. But that seems unlikely. While JetBlue and the MAS continue to meet, Smyth says JetBlue's overarching concern is doing what's best for the customer. Translation: Future JetBlue passengers will get a great view of the building as they wait for a taxi at the curb of Kennedy's sparkling new terminal.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.