Transit-Oriented Airports

There are recurrent discussions of how to best connect public transportation to airports; I, too, have made my comments both on how desirable such connections are and how to best build them. What I think is less discussed is how to build airports in a way that makes it easier to serve them by public transit. Airport authorities spend billions every few decades rebuilding terminals, sometimes even moving the entire airport to a new location, but they never consider how to do so in a way that makes transit access the easiest; this means airport access is done by car, or another high-cost scheme must be implemented to bring a rail line to the airport. Now that there is a plan to replace the Newark AirTrain for a billion dollars, just twenty years after it was first built, it’s worth discussing what capital projects on the airport side should facilitate transit access.

First, recall from previous discussions on this blog that the best way to serve a major international airport is by a mainline train, which is capable of both providing fast service to the CBD (where most inbound air travel is headed) and to many suburbs (which have outbound travelers).

However, we can say more: it is better, other things being equal, for the airport to be on the way, rather than at the end of a line. If the airport must be at the end of a line, it should not be far from where the line would’ve ended if the airport were not there. For example, LaGuardia is a few kilometers east of the end of the Astoria Line, which can be extended. Vancouver’s airport is on a short branch of the Canada Line, which would have been built to Richmond Centre even without the airport.

An even better example would have been Floyd Bennett Field, just past where the Utica subway should end; there were plans in the 1930s to build such a subway, but not only were they never realized, but also Mayor LaGuardia preferred to build the airport that currently bears his name, for easier auto access to Manhattan than Bennett Field had. Thus we can catalog the decision to open the new airport and close Bennett Field as bad for transit access, and oppose similar moves when cities today propose them. The best location for an airport, from the point of view of transit access, is near a subway or commuter rail station, ideally close enough that no further people mover is required.

Let us now discuss internal airport design. I claim that, to maximize transit accessibility, airports should have just one terminal (or several terminals that can be served from the same station), or, failing that, one dominant terminal, as at such fortress hubs as Detroit, Frankfurt, and Charles-de-Gaulle. The reason is that trains are slowed down by additional stations, whereas cars are not slowed down by additional bays and driveways. Mainline trains, in particular, rarely make more than one stop at an airport, and in the cases I know of where they do, the airport is at the end of a branch (such as the RER B and the lines serving Narita), rather than on the way.

This introduces some tension into airport design. Large airport terminals are dendritic, to maximize the perimeter available for gates and jetways; in some cases, they feature satellite terminals, connected to the main terminal by underground passageways, people movers, or even landside buses (as at Charles-de-Gaulle). I encourage people to look at satellite images of Frankfurt, O’Hare, Atlanta, Zurich, and Charles-de-Gaulle. Frankfurt’s Terminal 1 is a kilometer from entry to the farthest branches to the west. This creates some demand for quicker small terminals, which are harder to serve by rail. In addition, the most efficient dendritic design has branches coming out from the center in every direction, except perhaps one direction for an access road; this makes it harder to be on the way of a rail line.

I think it is telling that the single- or dominant-terminal design is less common at airports that are not a single airline’s fortress hub. Haneda and Narita have two major terminals each, one used by Japan Airlines and one used by ANA. Madrid has four terminals, one for Iberia and three connected ones, sharing a Metro station, for competitors, including several low-cost airlines. In all three cases, there are two train stations per line connecting to the airport (with the understanding that Narita has multiple lines, operating by competing railroads).

Usually, airports make an effort to group airlines by alliance. Thus Charles-de-Gaulle and Frankfurt put their respective dominant airlines and partners in their main terminals, and competing airlines in smaller terminals; and Narita makes sure to group Star Alliance airlines with ANA and Oneworld airlines with JAL. Among the largest airports of Europe, Heathrow is the big exception, since it organizes terminals by alliances but splits Oneworld between Terminal 5 for British Airways and Terminal 3 for the rest.

In the US, this is not common, with some exceptions such as Detroit and JFK’s Terminals 7 and 8. This is because the US does not permit connecting air passengers to transit its airports. All passengers arriving at a US airport from a foreign airport without preclearance, even ones in transit, have to go through immigration, collect their bags, go through customs, recheck their bags, and go through security again; between the inconvenience and the real risk of literally being disappeared, few people connect in the US between two foreign countries. Hub terminals elsewhere facilitate easy transfers by maintaining large international areas where passengers can walk between gates, and keeping the passport controls between the international and domestic terminals short. Regardless, even with the vagaries of American immigration policy, it is easier to connect without having to go between terminals; moreover, for passengers leaving the US rather than arriving, the situation is if anything easier than in Europe since there’s no passport control at exit.

Let us now apply these concepts to New York’s two main international airports. Newark may be a fortress hub, but it is not configured as one; United and its Star Alliance partners are sprawled across all three terminals. Moreover, the terminals are just far enough from the commuter rail station to require a people mover. Since it’s better for an airport to be on the way, and have just a single terminal, what this suggests is that Terminal C should be lengthened to approach the train station.

There is currently a plan to replace Terminal A, for $1-1.25 billion of construction budget and $2 billion total development budget. Under this single-terminal paradigm, the terminal should not be redeveloped. Instead, it should be demolished, and replaced by extensions of Terminal C to the west, with additional concourses and piers both to the north and to the south, replacing the current road loop serving the terminals. People would arrive by road via US 1 or by rail via the commuter rail station. Security checkpoints would be conducted at a building just west of Route 1, and the airside terminal’s western end would be an overpass over the road. Rail passengers would have enclosed overpasses to the checkpoints; there would not be any need for a people mover, only moving walkways given the distance between the station and the terminal’s current eastern end. There is enough space for the new concourses to also replace Terminal B, which is of similar vintage to Terminal A.

At JFK, the situation is different. First, it is not a fortress hub. Its top three carriers – JetBlue, Delta, and American – are all reasonably happy with their terminals (Delta’s terminal is 4, not 2, which it is abandoning). British Airways is considering abandoning Terminal 7 and joining American at Terminal 8. Consolidating the airlines that use Terminal 1 at Terminal 4 is impossible until the US resolves its endless immigration lines, which at Terminal 4 are often longer than an hour.

Second and more fundamentally, the transit access situation there is good enough. JFK is far from any subway or commuter rail line, so the only way to serve it by rail is by a dedicated people mover, of which the AirTrain is not bad. The connection to Jamaica approaches the “be on the way” maxim well, since Jamaica is central to the LIRR network and has fast service to Manhattan on the subway as well. Some transit advocates in the region periodically propose a direct subway or commuter rail line to replace the AirTrain connection, but such plans always run against network design issues, since the branching is set up in a way that reduces frequency to Jamaica, a more important station. Given that there must be some people mover connection, traveling in a circle among the terminals is not terrible; straightening the route has some benefits, but the cost of rebuilding the infrastructure is almost certainly too high to be justified.

Update: James Sinclair argues convincingly that the Newark AirTrain is not really at the end of its life, but Port Authority is saying that to justify spending billions of dollars on a better replacement, including either a PATH extension to the airport station (which is largely dead) or an extension of the AirTrain to Newark Penn Station, as a sweetener for United.


    • Adirondacker12800

      The Port Authority has to build tracks out to Newark Airport so they can start running ten car trains between Newark and the World Trade Center. That’s were additional storage space is.

      • Joey

        The tracks become longer if you remove the operationally unnecessary second crossover. Plus, PATH’s operational facility is pretty close by.

  1. thewanderingaramean

    There is arguably room to build a passenger terminal where you’ve described, though the very, very long walks to the gates in the rest of C (>1 mile in some cases) are questionable, even with moving sidewalks.

    But where are you planning to put additional space for airplanes? That’s what the airport really needs and the space to the west of the existing C won’t support that very well. Look to LAX for the debacle which is piers built too close together and alley congestion.

    • Alon Levy

      Yes, it is indeed long – about 1.9 km at the farthest, vs. 1.4 km at Frankfurt’s main terminal (a bit more at Terminal 2, but it has a people mover). One possible hack to make it a bit better is to try using the eastern gates for flights that are less likely to be O&D, for example very short-hop flights.

      As for additional space for airplanes: there’s space for new piers, perpendicular to the terminal building, parallel to the existing middle pier. Most of the new piers would be to the south, there there’s all the space in the world if you’re willing to obliterate the Marriott and some parking structures.

  2. kclo3

    This is basically why I don’t agree with occasional proposals to cut off the SEPTA Airport Line at Eastwick and replace it with a people mover and HSR bypass. PHL, albeit a fragmented-terminal design, has the luxury of 4 separate airport terminal stations arranged linearly, conveniently carrying all the advantages of mainline rail down to the boarding-gate level. To replace that with a necessary transfer is bad enough, but even then the people mover would be a useless burden for HSR as well:

    The HSR bypass ROW, close as it is to Terminal A, could theoretically have a station at its closest point to the airport and a pedestrian overpass a la the EWR plan (ludicrous as it is to make rail users walk a mile to Terminal C East), thereby making the people mover redundant factoring in waiting time. It isn’t even substantially straighter compared to the current NEC, as both have about the same amount of curvature.

    Spatially, the airport is basically situated at the end of its radius from 30th St, since the only suburb beyond it that isn’t already served by the Wilmington Line is Tinicum Township, which is close enough to the airport that the current bus or even walking should be bearable.

    If there is enough space on the current Airport Line ROW then fine, build the bypass alongside the current service. If not, a simpler minimal-concrete solution would be to increase frequency on the Airport Line and have SEPTA accept Amtrak and airline codeshare tickets. A cross-platform station could possibly be built at the Airport Line – NEC junction for easier connections from the south. A people mover shouldn’t be necessary at all, just as it shouldn’t at EWR.

    P.S. The PHL expansion plan calls for even more terminals built west of A and at the eastern side, across Runway 35. In such case, a people mover as called for may be justified, although it is unknown whether it will run in the SEPTA ROW and/or replace the Airport Line service.

    • Adirondacker12800

      What destinations does Philadelphia serve that aren’t served at Newark or BWI or Dulles or JFK? There’s gonna be thrice weekly flights to Nowhereistan that only operate out of JFK. Almost no one flies them which is why they are three times a week.
      The airport line has been open for 30 years. What makes you think having long distance trains stop at the airport is going to attract many people?

      • Michael Noda

        Philadelphia is the only Oneworld fortress hub in the Northeast that isn’t shared with one of the other alliances. New York will always be important to AA/Oneworld, but its operations are split between domestic at LGA and international at JFK. If they can get those runway extensions at PHL, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of connecting international passengers got nudged over to PHL for the wider selection of AA (former US) domestic destinations vs. those found at JFK.

    • Alon Levy

      I go back and forth on the Philadelphia Airport alignment. I’ve mostly been convinced that the travel time benefit to HSR passengers is small to nonexistent. The benefits to air-rail connections are greatly reduced now that US and American have merged – I don’t even know if the airport’s going to remain a major hub.

      The issue with the current layout is that you can’t use SEPTA to transfer between terminals. The frequency just isn’t there. The expansion plan calls for a people mover between the terminal because of that. There are the airside connections between most terminals, but the plan calls for a people mover anyway.

      • Adirondacker12800

        …what destinations are available at Philadelphia that make it worth your time and effort to pass by EWR or BWI? Especially if the context is a broader network of HSR covering the Northeast and Midwest. Harrisburg? Harrisburg so you can catch a flight to Cleveland? Nah it would be faster to take the train to Cleveland from Harrisburg. Lots of the hubiliciousness in the Northeast and Midwest disappears if there is an HSR network.

        Philadelphia is the country’s 7th biggest metro area. It’s going to have good air service no matter what.

          • Adirondacker12800

            Just for giggles I asked Expedia for PHL-SFO and Orbitz for anyNYC-SFO for two Wednesdays in October, non-stop. 380.20 from Philadephia and 436.20 from New York.

            DFW for the same dates. 256.20 for Philadelphia and 206.20 for New York.
            MIA both of them have the same price. I’m not gonna go compare with Southwest or do other cities.

            The train fare will cut into your savings if any.

          • Michael Noda

            No way in hell. It’s frequently cost competitive (although not time competitive) to look at NYC flights when planning a trip from PHL. Sometimes PHL is cheaper, frequently PHL is not.

      • kclo3

        The current bus shuttle between F, A, and B works reasonably well (although obviously not for aircraft movements), and thus IMO an airside people mover within the secure zone would be far more useful than whatever landside solution they’re proposing, even if it connects to the parking garages. The question is how to fit such a mover elevated or underground below the terminals.

        Click to access ALTERNATIVE-A.pdf

      • johndmuller

        If the problem with using SEPTA as an airport people-mover is only that it does not have frequent enough service, why not add a SEPTA Shuttle (covering only the airport related stops) in between regular SEPTA service. Might need a switch or two or at worst a small siding to keep the way clear for the regular service – otherwise would just require an extra trainset or two plus crews.

        • Alon Levy

          Crews are expensive; that’s why airport people movers tend to be driverless. Turnarounds are also a nontrivial issue on a short, frequent line – maintaining a schedule rather than constant headways may require padded turnarounds, raising crew costs even more.

          • ant6n

            Well, the line seems double tracked. How about allocating one track for the people mover, and one for SEPTA. With a single people-mover train, it could probably be automated.

        • Eric

          There are two tracks at PHL. One track could serve the SEPTA trains while one could serve a single automated people mover running at sufficient frequency. I don’t know how useful it would be to passengers though…

          • kclo3

            It wouldn’t be, considering it wouldn’t be an efficient substitute to the airside shuttle bus that already exists (category B -> category C). The SEPTA platforms are just too far away from the gates and outside the secure zone. Either solution would still have to address how to extend to isolated terminals to the east, SEPTA thoroughly blocked by a skybridge.

  3. Adirondacker12800

    Mayor LaGuardia preferred to build the airport that currently bears his name, for easier auto access to Manhattan than Bennett Field had.

    Better access to the Upper East Side where the people who could afford to travel lived.

    ideally close enough that no further people mover is required.

    If you want an airport with 100 or more gates there’s gonna be a people mover.

    People would arrive by road via US 1

    The primary reason for the people mover at Newark and JFK is to get buses off the gridlocked roads.

    They arrive at the airport via US1&9. And the Turnpike, the Turnpike has a dedicated interchange for the airport. And US22 and I-78 and State 21. If you know what you are doing you can sneak up on it via local streets.
    Without a people mover how do people get from the parking, car rentals, hotels shuttles etc.

    replace Terminal B, which is of similar vintage to Terminal A.

    All three terminals were built at the same time. Terminal C was an empty shell without any gates for a long time. It’s why it doesn’t have those jet-age gate pods like Terminal A and B. One of the plans floated was PATH to Terminal A and then out to Plainfield.

    • Alon Levy

      Was it about the Upper East Side, really? I thought it was about Manhattan, in general. At the time Lower Manhattan was more important than today and Midtown still somewhat less important (the Empire State Building was still empty, as I recall). LaGuardia went with the Midtown Tunnel as the piece of infrastructure he wanted the airport to be close to, but that’s less about the UES and more about car traffic to Manhattan in general.

      Frankfurt has 100 gates at Terminal 1, although only about half have jetways. Atlanta has nearly 200, with an airside people mover only. O’Hare has nearly 200 gates as well, and manages to serve Terminals 1-3 with one L station. Large airports can avoid people mover transfers.

      The people movers at the airports help get cars and buses off the roads… but surely, having an easier connection from NJT to the airport and boosting commuter rail frequency would entice more riders, who are now taking taxis or driving.

      • Adirondacker12800

        At the time most people in Manhattan aspired to a day in the Rockaways instead of a day in Coney Island. There wasn’t a whole lot of hotels downtown. Still aren’t a whole lot of hotels downtown.

  4. Ryan

    The best solution for EWR in particular is to demolish the airport entirely and rebuild its terminals on top of the NEC directly.

    • orulz

      This is a great idea. In fact move all of the land side functions west of highway 1 – ticketing, parking, rent-a-car, etc. That frees up all the land east of highway 1 to be used for air-side functions, even possibly configuring the runways for better operations (greater separation between 4R/22L and 22R/4L?)

  5. Sascha Claus

    Another example of an transit-oriented airport would be Leipzig/Halle, which ended up beside the autobahn by historical accident. A different set of circumstances made this autobahn the best approach for the new high-speed line Munich–Berlin into Leipzig, giving the airport optimal access to a through-running mainline railway.

  6. Eric

    This post says a lot about design for rail and pedestrians, but nothing about design for airplanes. How should an airport arrange its runways to maximize capacity? What is the best arrangement of taxiways to minimize delays due to taxiing distance and plane traffic? How should terminals be arranged to access those taxiways and runways? I have a feeling there’s a lot to be said on this subject.

    While I haven’t thought comprehensively about the issue, my intuition is that ATl does a near-ideal job for domestic traffic. It has two main runway sets, the necessary vast distance apart so that they can be used simultaneously, with terminals and other facilities in the middle – the ideal setup. All domestic passengers arrive at one location for check in. The underground people mover makes it quick to move between dispersed terminals, each of which is short enough to be walkable. Since the terminals are physically separate, planes can pass between them – a “street grid” for planes. The only difficulty with this setup is accommodating incoming international passengers with their customs requirements.

    As for the most horribly misdesigned airport, presumably it’s CDG.

    • Alon Levy

      Terminal 8 at JFK has a similar design, but since it’s much smaller, there’s no need for a people mover. Large international sections and airside people movers don’t mix well, even without American Stasi impositions on transiting passengers: since its most recent expansion, Zurich has had to segregate its airside people mover into a domestic/Schengen car and an international car, since it’s no longer possible to keep all the international passengers in one terminal as was the case until a few years ago.

  7. Bjorn Swenson

    Readers may be interested in a few fantasy-level sketches I drew forEWR and JFK. The above plans were heavily influenced by the Regional Plan Association Upgrading to World Class report.

    As a sidenote, the area of JFK is slightly larger than ATL, discounting the area of ATL’s 5th runway.

    ATL-style parallel concourses are very efficient for airport operations, though are less ideal for users faced with longer walks and people mover rides. Additionally, building new concourse rows strains the people mover; as a result when DEN maxes out the length of the A and C concourses the concept plan is to either build two new north-south concourses flanking the western and eastern sides of the terminal or construct a separate terminal at the southeast edge of the airport.

    • Adirondacker12800

      so instead of people mover, check-in, security, gate, it becomes check-in, security, people mover, gate. Whoopee!. instead of having a bunch of small terminals that can be closed torn down and rebuilt ya got one humogous terminal that locks everyone into that terminal forever. Sounds even better.

      • Alon Levy

        Don’t knock it; large single terminals can have a long shelf life, and even get retrofitted for new arrangements like the 380, the TSA, new piers and gates, etc. Not every airport is the feudal insanity that is JFK.

        • devin

          have you traveled through Denver’s DIA? While I think the new rail link is pretty unnecessary, I think the design/layout of DIA makes for a much easier traveling experience than almost anywhere else I’ve flown through. I don’t think this is just Colorado homerism there but maybe it is!

          • Alex B.

            But if you’re talking about large hubs (with the combination of terminal, check-in, people mover, gate), then you are talking about (by definition) airports that serve a lot of passengers. And airports that need to be able to handle a lot of airplane movements.

            The main advantage of a layout like ATL or DEN is that they can handle a ton of flights very efficiently. The biggest challenge at EWR is the airfield – the current constraint is the runways. The terminals don’t work well, either – but they’re not the biggest constraint.

            As to the earlier discussion about PHL, remember that the level of service an airport gets isn’t just about the local market, but also about the airport’s role in the networks of the airlines that serve it. Dulles is an interesting case: it went from United’s primary trans-atlantic hub to an afterthought after United and Continental merged, offering the new airline a fortress hub in the New York market.

  8. Pingback: TOD: Transit-Owned Development | PlaNYourCity

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