Where JetBlue Put Its Millions

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A rendering of the new JetBlue T5 Terminal at JFK International Airport.

Any traveler who has flown recently need not be told that air travel can be rough. With airlines systematically eliminating the niceties that once made flying bearable — free checked luggage, in-flight meals, complimentary headsets, the entire can of soda — it's only gotten rougher.

JetBlue Airways hopes to inject a little bit of the lost luxury back into air travel — if not on board (the airline announced on Aug. 4 that it would begin charging $7 to buy in-flight blankets and pillows), then on the ground. This September, the airline will open the doors to its new $743 million, 635,000-square-foot ultramodern terminal at New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport, whose facilities — including expanded security areas, high-end dining, boutique shopping and free WiFi — the airline hopes, will upgrade and expedite passengers' pre-flight experience.

The new Terminal 5 — located directly behind the old landmarked Terminal 5 designed by Eero Saarinen for T.W.A. in 1962 — was created by the San Francisco–based architectural firm Gensler. It was a collaboration launched by chance when Art Gensler, the firm's chairman, missed his flight home and ended up on a JetBlue flight to California with the airline's founder, David Neeleman. (Neeleman is known for hopping random JetBlue flights and handing out peanuts to passengers). "Nothing is more nerve-wracking," says Gensler's Bill Hooper, chief architect of the Terminal 5 project, "than having your boss hand you [David Neeleman's] card and saying, 'Make something happen.'"

The final product is a hyperefficient 26-gate, Y-shaped hub. According to Rich Smyth, head of redevelopment for JetBlue, the terminal is located in a 78-acre corner of Kennedy airport, a swath large enough to allow for the optimal "placing of aluminum" — industry slang for maneuvering airplanes. There are double taxiing lanes feeding into the terminal's gates, enabling arriving planes to approach jetways without waiting for departing planes to clear the path. Architects installed cleaning-supply closets at the gates to assist flight crews in maintaining a fast 30-minute plane turnaround time, and JetBlue hopes that each gate will turn over 10 flights daily, compared with an average three flights per gate per day for other airlines — that rate, Jet Blue says, should help keep ticket prices relatively low.

This is one of the first U.S. airline terminals built after the Sept. 11 attacks, which is apparent the minute you enter through the revolving doors of the sunny, terrazzo-floored hall: the centerpiece here is the 20 glass-framed security gates, which span 340 ft. and comprise the largest security area of any U.S. airport. The terminal's 40 check-in desks and 100 self-service ticketing kiosks have been arranged on either side of security — many passengers arrive at the airport having already checked into their flights and printed their boarding passes at home. Hooper says the terminal's space is clean and spare enough to adapt to changing technology, allowing for further reconfigured security gates, in the future, or fewer check-in desks. "Right now travel is in a state of flux," says Hooper. "One day everybody might even have a chip in their suitcase programmed with information on where it's supposed to go."

The well-organized security area also speeds passengers along — JetBlue estimates that 20 million travelers, or 30% of Kennedy Airport's total traffic, will pass through the terminal every year — with special family gates that have wider lanes to accommodate parents traveling with small children. Just on the other side of the security gates, in front of a luminescent blue wall, architects have thoughtfully installed a long-overdue innovation: a 225-foot bench, where passengers can reassemble their carry-ons and slip back into their stilettos.

The average air traveler spends at least an hour and a half in the terminal, and the minicity inside Terminal 5 tries hard to occupy that time. The space is outfitted with free WiFi and XM radio, big screen TVs at every gate and plenty of outlets for recharging cell phones and laptops. There's a resident pharmacist, a day spa and later, if all goes as planned, there will be holiday concerts, art exhibits, and perhaps even theater and dance performances. Ten shops circle the atrium — the bustling heart of the blue-hued terminal, at the fork of the its "Y" — including luxe retailers such as Lacoste and the Japanese clothing maker Muji. Overhead, a 44-foot yoke of LED screens, designed by David Rockwell to echo the undulating roof line of the nearby Saarinen building, hangs from the ceiling, displaying airline promotions and, someday, digital art. Areas of stadium seating have been stationed around the atrium — ideal for sitting back and watching passersbys.

The terminal also holds a 10,000-square-foot food hall designed by the architectural firm that helped style Whole Foods' prepared food section, along with nine sit-down restaurants — including a tapas bar and a steak house — that serve cuisine designed by the chefs of some of New York City's most popular eateries, including Del Posto, Balthazar and Rosa Mexicano. But the most uniquely New York dining feature in the terminal has got to be food delivery: at 10 "bars" scattered by the gates throughout the terminal, you can order from a food and beverage menu displayed on a touch screen, and have your prosciutto-and-fig panini or Tanqueray and tonic delivered directly to you. (You'll get an ETA on your delivery, so you can decide whether you have enough time before take-off.)

At the far end of the main concourse is what Hooper considers his terminal's most beguiling feature. Here, he has arranged brightly colored Moroso lounge chairs in front of the plate glass windows that overlook Kennedy Airport's main runways. Hooper calls it his "big-screen TV," and invites travelers to settle in and watch the mesmerizing take-off and landing of more than 1,000 aircraft a day. Fittingly, it is a simple glass window, and not the terminal's dizzying array of high-tech accoutrements, that reconnects the traveler to the bygone glamour of flying.