"October 2, 2003
A New Function for a Landmark of the Jet Age
By DAVID W. DUNLAP
JetBlue Airways is proposing to revive the Trans World Airlines terminal, which closed two years ago along with T.W.A., at Kennedy International Airport.
its expressively sculptural forms — roof vaults that embraced travelers like sheltering bird wings, swooping walkways that propelled them to waiting jetliners — Eero Saarinen's Trans World Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport was meant to be a prelude to flight.
Perhaps America's most lyrical monument to the dawn of the jet age, it has nevertheless been a dead end for two years, its coves and bridges lacking the swirling crowds that brought a vital fourth dimension to the Saarinen landmark.
Now a revival may be at hand for the 41-year-old building, known as Terminal 5, which has been empty since T.W.A. closed operations in October 2001. An aggressive young airline, JetBlue Airways, would like to use the landmark for a small part of its operations. That proposal appears to have broken a longstanding impasse over whether the building would be best preserved as a functioning terminal or as a museum piece.
JetBlue runs 75 to 80 flights a day out of Kennedy and wants to triple that number. It hopes to build a 26-gate terminal behind the Saarinen building. The plan calls for the old and new terminals to be linked by the tubular passenger bridges that were memorably used in the 2002 film "Catch Me if You Can" as the setting of a climactic encounter between Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks.
Though JetBlue's primary operations would be in the new terminal, it might install electronic check-in kiosks in the Saarinen terminal, meaning that passengers could recreate the experience of moving through that space to their planes, now A320's rather than 707's.
"We would like to be able to embrace the Saarinen building and make it part of the JetBlue image," said Richard Smyth, the vice president of redevelopment for the three-year-old airline. The landmark, he said, could fit into JetBlue's marketing, with its midcentury modernist feel.
However, neither JetBlue nor the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, believe the Saarinen building, in its entirety, can be transformed into a modern terminal.
WHEN we first got here, we looked at Terminal 5 and said, `Boy, this would be cool if we could use it,' " Mr. Smyth recalled. "But we very quickly realized that it couldn't work."
For instance, he said, there is no room for curbside check-in, no way to move baggage efficiently through the building and no place to put security equipment like bulky explosive-detecting devices. And the gently arched tubular bridges do not meet modern requirements for people with disabilities.
William R. DeCota, director of aviation at the Port Authority, said: "It's going to become more of an airport centerpiece. You can't just make it a restaurant, a museum, a conference center. But you can make it all of these things to some extent."
Ted D. Kleiner, the authority's assistant aviation director, also envisions travelers going to the Saarinen building to while away weather-related or other delays, a trip that will take no more than 10 minutes on the future AirTrain system. The building could also serve the 50,000 people who work at Kennedy, he said.
JetBlue's willingness to consider some passenger use of the building has earned the tentative backing of the Municipal Art Society, which has long insisted that the only meaningful preservation of the landmark lies in restoring it as a fully functioning airline terminal, rather than as a "fly in amber."
"We've made very encouraging progress in speaking with JetBlue and the Port Authority about a solution for a new terminal," said Frank E. Sanchis III, executive director the society, after a meeting on Tuesday. A report of that meeting is due tomorrow at the Federal Aviation Administration.
Robert B. Tierney, the chairman of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, said he was "very supportive" of the evolving plan.
And Peg Breen, president of the private New York Landmarks Conservancy, said, "I think we're moving." The conservancy agrees with the Port Authority that the building is better suited for adaptive reuse. "In modern airports," she said, "all you want to do is get through lines and get through security."
Or, as Mr. DeCota said, "Most people are not here for self-actualization."
But his affection for the building and its kinetic energy was obvious during an inspection tour last week, when he stepped behind a sinuously curving information desk. "You can see the women in T.W.A. livery," he said.
"You do get an emotion from this building," Mr. DeCota allowed.
Still breathtakingly luminous, but unnervingly quiet, the Trans World Flight Center looks better today than it did in its last years of operation, when it was filled with unsympathetic accretions necessary for security and baggage-handling. Among other steps, the Port Authority has reopened the sunken waiting lounge in front of the main window, which T.W.A. had decked over and used as a ticket counter.
The spherical clock over the bridge that once led from the Ambassador Club to the Lisbon Lounge and Paris Cafe, still tells time. "It's valiantly doing its job," Mr. DeCota said, glancing up at 11:11, "waiting for someone to see it."
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company"