Fly the Branded Skies

A great day for New York City

Image of the new Terminal 4Yesterday was a great day for New York City.

If you want proof, watch this video of the press conference announcing Delta’s expansion of Terminal 4. You’ll see one mayor, one governor, one congressman, three state legislators, one city council speaker, one borough president, one Port Authority executive director, one company president, one head of the tourism board, one CEO, and the Dutch minister of transport, public works, and water management.

And they all agree that, as far as days for New York City go, yesterday was pretty swell.

The expansion of Terminal 4, and the resulting demolition of Terminal 3, seems to be pretty uncontroversial. In a way, that’s surprising. The aviation community can be pretty conservative. There are howls of protest when airlines change their colours or abandon old traditions. I’m sure somebody out there was upset when ValuJet changed its name to AirTran. More importantly, there was certainly a great deal of controversy when JetBlue demolished much of the old Terminal 5.

There isn’t as much love for Terminal 3, which opened when JFK was still known as Idlewild and hasn’t aged well. Even in 1960, the terminal was considered “compromised by an overabundance of distracting detail.” The speakers at the press conference today were not kind. The attitude now seems to be that Terminal 3 was innovative for its time, but that time has past.

Certainly it has for Delta Air Lines. Right now, Delta, the second busiest airline at JFK, uses two of its worst terminals. But terminal experience is brand experience. Even under the best circumstances, passengers now sometimes spend longer at the terminal than on the plane. Between increased security and longer delays, they’ll probably spend even more time there in the future. Making that time pleasant will become more and more important for airlines.

JetBlue’s Terminal 5 is one example of how airlines are addressing that challenge. Frankly, I’ll choose jetBlue because of its terminal, even though JFK is the hardest New York airport for me to get to, even though jetBlue often costs more than its competitors, even though jetBlue only flies to Buffalo, and not Toronto, which is where I’m usually headed, and even though the last two times I flew jetBlue I was delayed eight and 14 hours respectively coming back.

I’m not sure we can expect as much from the expanded Terminal 4. For one thing, Delta will not have the whole terminal to itself. For another, the emphasis seems to be on expanding facilities, not on innovation. The press conference today was pretty short on details, but the images Delta has released so far look like pretty much any other modern international airport. Perhaps more announcements are yet to come, but so far the objective seems to be to bring Delta’s facilities up to standard, not to blaze new trails.

Still, starting in 2013, flying through JFK should get a lot more pleasant for Delta’s international passengers.