Innovation & Design

JetBlue's Terminal Takes Wing


While most airlines areputting their passengers through the wringer -- less food, extra fees, and more seats crammed into the carriers' flying sardine cans -- JetBlue (JBLU) is making final plans to send its passengers through the "flight wing tubes" -- the famously glamorous passageways designed by Eero Saarinen in 1962 for the landmark TWA terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.

Leonardo DiCaprio glided through this conduit in the film Catch Me If You Can, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation put it on its 2003 list of most endangered historic places -- yet it has sat empty since 2001, following TWA's demise.

STYLE AND SUBSTANCE. Later this year, JetBlue will break ground on an $875 million 26-gate terminal that will incorporate the historic structure into a building the airline insists will set a new paradigm of efficiency -- or, depending on which preservationists you ask, permanently eviscerate an irreplaceable cultural landmark.

Either way, the terminal marks JetBlue's first major front-of-house building project, and it is being designed with the same cocktail of flair, efficiency, and disregard for convention that has defined the brand (and kept the carrier squarely in the black) since its launch in 2000.

JetBlue has always been design-focused, albeit in ways particularly attuned to the needs of a low-cost air carrier. The famous leather seats, for example, not only offer passengers comfort and a sense of luxury, they also wear better than cloth. And, operating a single aircraft type, an off-the-shelf model from Airbus, ensures efficiency in both maintenance and route-planning. The clean, pared-down design of the airline's brand identity manages to be simultaneously stylish and frill-free.

DESIGNED WITH RESTRAINT. So, what will the JetBlue terminal look like? "It's very straightforward -- nothing sexy about it," Richard Smyth, vice-president of redevelopment at JFK, says without hesitation as he stands in the project's war room on the second floor of JetBlue's ho-hum headquarters beneath a La Guardia Airport flight path in Queens. "We're not planning to build a monument. We're a low-cost airline, although this is not necessarily a low-cost building. Low cost means putting money in the right place. This is a very practical, very efficient building."

In the architectural equivalent of leather seats and a single-model fleet, JetBlue plans to use a minimal number of lighting fixture styles and a boldly colored self-cleaning industrial carpet -- the kind typically used as a mud mat.

Pointing to a bird's-eye view of the latest rendering, Smyth says that, to begin with, there's no grand ticketing hall. Even as American Airlines (AMR) prepares to open a JFK terminal with a towering, 65-foot roofline, JetBlue maintains that the future of airport design is about what happens on the other side of security -- particularly as increasing numbers of passengers now do their ticketing from home.

"GLOWING BLUE BOX." As designed by Gensler, the no-nonsense corporate architectural powerhouse, the ticketing hall is low-ceilinged, reducing operating and construction costs. From there, more than 10 million passengers a year will pass through one of the largest metal-detector setups in the U.S. in a single configuration -- ensuring efficient passenger flow.

JetBlue currently operates 110 flights a day out of JFK, filling up Terminal 6. The new terminal is designed to handle 250 flights per day, or up to 20 million passengers coming and going each year. Leaving security, all will pass through what the architects describe as a "glowing blue box," a grand space designed to assure the traveler that "JetBlue takes care of you," says Bill Hooper, the principal in charge of the project at Gensler.

"That's the 'Oh, wow!' -- that's where you'll know you're in the JetBlue terminal," explains Andrea Spiegel, the airline's vice-president of sales and marketing.

NOTHING ARBITRARY. Recognizing the importance of this "great room" -- after security, but before the departure gates -- JetBlue hired David Rockwell, the entertainment and branding architect known for his work on theaters, the W Hotels brand, and chic restaurants such as New York's Nobu.

The space marks Rockwell's first airport project, even if it is more about hospitality than transportation. "What's intriguing to me about design is how it tells a story and connects with you emotionally, how it in some way makes life better -- that it's not arbitrary," Rockwell says. "And there's something so nonarbitrary about JetBlue."

Accordingly, he sees the great room -- essentially a glorified food court -- as embodying three interrelated elements: New York-ness, JetBlue-ness, and usefulness. His preliminary plan envisions the theater of New York City's streets brought inside the terminal.

TRIPPING THE FLIGHT FANTASTIC. Taking its cues from the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the stoops of the Big Apple's brownstone neighborhoods, Rockwell imagines replacing an airport's typical plastic tables with stepped, raised platforms for people-watching. With the help of Broadway choreographer Jerry Mitchell, Rockwell plotted the movement of passengers through the terminal. "We looked at dance, because we wanted to create a sense of lightness and airiness," Rockwell says.

It was also Rockwell's way of reflecting Saarinen's building without mimicking its forms or scale. TWA's then-president, Ralph Damon, originally hoped the historic terminal's architecture would express "the drama and the specialness and the excitement of travel...not in a static, enclosed place, but a place of movement and transition," the architectural historian Jayne Merkel quotes in her history of Saarinen.

As Rockwell sees it, "We're showing the romance of travel at a different scale -- not at the level of a whole building, but as a series of experiences on the inside, on a scale that doesn't try and compete with the Saarinen building."

TUBE CONNECTION. Not competing with the Saarinen building while maintaining its intended use as an airline terminal has made for a delicate balancing act between the airline and preservationists. The low roofline of the JetBlue ticketing hall is a calculated economy, but it's also an attempt to refrain from overwhelming the iconic structure.

"The Saarinen building is open and big, but you can fit it in our lobby," says David Epstein, Gensler's lead designer on the project. With two sets of approach roadways, one to the old building and one to the new, the expectation is that passengers with a flair for the dramatic and architectural will get their boarding passes in the historic building and walk through Saarinen's Flight Wing Tubes to the new terminal.

Later this year, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which leases the land to JetBlue and owns the Saarinen terminal, will solicit proposals for further "adaptive reuse" of the structure. JetBlue has committed to placing check-in facilities in the building, but it remains to be seen what else will occupy it -- most likely a restaurant, museum, or conference center of some kind.

In the meantime, the Municipal Art Society of New York, a nonprofit advocacy group, is fighting to preserve as much of the Saarinen building as possible, particularly one of the original gate areas.

READY FOR TAKEOFF. JetBlue recognizes it has the greatest piece of airport architecture ever built sitting in its front yard. "It's the ultimate expression of JetBlue's connection to New York," says Spiegel. "We're creating a new terminal that will accommodate our growth in a way that respects a New York landmark and, in a way, gives back to the city by restoring it. When we chose JFK, there were a lot of doubters out there, but we proved everyone wrong, so we obviously have a certain affection for JFK, and want this to happen in a big way."

Whether or not JetBlue will incorporate the distinctive image of the historic building into its identity remains to be determined but, at the least, it will be a powerful icon -- a New York landmark.

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