John F. Kennedy had just entered the U.S. Navy in 1942 when construction began on what was then the largest airport in the world on the Idlewild Golf Course in southeast Queens. The airport, which would eventually bear his name, originally covered 1,000 acres and eventually grew to over 5,000 acres and became the busiest airport serving the country’s largest city.
The airport is at its best when it stays out of the headlines, but it has had a spate of incidents that have put it in the public eye for dubious, laudable and tragic reasons. Movies have been filmed there (“Catch Me If You Can”), taken place there (“The Terminal”) and been made about a heist there (“GoodFellas”).
It was renamed John F. Kennedy Airport one month after the President was assassinated in 1963. Seventy-seven days later, the Beatles mugged for the cameras as they disembarked onto the tarmac there during the band’s first trip to America.
That was one of the lighter moments for Kennedy, but like any airport, it has played host to its share of tragedies. The first plane crash at the airport occurred in 1954 after an Italian airliner circled the runways for two and a half hours before crashing in its fourth attempt to land. Twenty-six of the 32 passengers were killed.
Unfortunately, Kennedy has been directly or indirectly involved in a disproportionally high number of American air disasters in the last quarter-century. The most important, from a historical standpoint, may have been the crash of Eastern Airlines Flight 66 as it tried to land at runway 22L, which led to strict safety measures against wind shear.
There have been five large jetliner crashes there in the last 10 years alone, including the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 into Long Island Sound and, more recently, the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor. Kennedy was also one of the first airports to close on September 11, 2001 due to security concerns, but none of the planes involved in the terrorist attacks originated from there.
Short of tragedy, nothing put the airport in the spotlight more than the Lufthansa heist on December 11, 1978. That is when some enterprising mobsters pulled the biggest caper in American history, successfully stealing $5.8 million that was being transferred from a Swiss bank to New York on Lufthansa Airlines.
Aided by a Lufthansa employee, six conspirators were told that the airline acted as a courier for large sums of untraceable money. The group hatched a plan to steal a shipment and waited to be notified of the shipment from the employee, Louis Werner. They were told about the shipment on December 8th and the plan was put into motion.
When a security guard was on break, the group broke a padlock on one of the airport’s gates and replaced it with a dummy lock. At around 3 a.m., the robbers entered the terminal and began forcibly rounding up Lufthansa employees. They forced the night manager to open the vault, which contained 72 cartons of money. The money was placed into a van that had gone through the busted lock. The culprits made their way off the airport grounds just after 4:20 a.m. without incident.
The official take from the heist was $5 million in cash and $850,000 in jewelry. The money was being transported from Switzerland’s Commerzbank to Chase Manhattan bank and consisted of money spent by American tourists and businessmen overseas and thus had no sequential serial numbers and could not be traced.
Only Werner was ever implicated for a role in the scheme. He served five years in prison and $20,000 was recovered from him. The rest of the money was never recovered.
Twenty-five years later, the airport would be more secure, but it would be known for a big-money project of a different kind.
The $2-billion AirTrain opened last year to considerable fanfare and was immediately hailed by the mayor, governor and Port Authority as a bridge to the 21st century of commuting. However, in a “Back To The Future”-like twist, there could have been mass transit to Kennedy Airport from the moment the Van Wyck Expressway was completed in 1950.
The idea was nixed by city master builder Robert Moses, who preferred roads to subway cars. The Van Wyck was designed to carry 2,630 vehicles at rush hour, while trains could carry as many as 40,000 people over the same time period, as Robert Caro wrote in his book, “The Power Broker.” Discussing the E line, he continues: “All that was needed to complete a rapid transit link was to bring that subway up to the expressway’s center mall and extend it for another three miles.”
Moses nixed the idea against the wishes of Dodd McHugh, chief of the Office of Master Planning, who left him with an ominous warning: “Spend the money now, McHugh argued, and the right-of-way would be available whenever the city wanted to use it. Don’t spend it now, and if the city should want to acquire the necessary right-of-way for rapid transit in the future, after the expressway opened, the land would be many times more expensive than it is now,” Caro wrote.
The eventual construction and operation of the AirTrain encountered some predictable bumps in the road. Nearby homeowners complained of excessive noise from the five-year project and some filed complaints against the Port Authority for home damage.
Now the service is rolling. The Port Authority claims heavier-than-expected ridership figures with the one-year anniversary of the system approaching in December. The one millionth paying passenger used the system in June and more than 3.6 million people have used the system overall during the first six months of operation.
The AirTrain is only one of several long-term projects at the airport. The Port Authority has $10.3 billion tied up in infrastructure work and the construction of new terminals across the airport. A new facility which will combine Terminals 7, 8 and 9 will be completed in 2007 and will have enough check-in space to hold Giants Stadium. JetBlue Airways has also agreed to renovate the historic TWA Terminal 5 building, which was the backdrop for “Catch Me If You Can,” to make the building part of its check-in facilities. The 1962 gull-shaped building was designed by Eero Saarinen.
The airport needs the extra space: it led the top 25 domestic airports in passenger traffic growth last year. It serves approximately 35 million passengers each year, up eight percent from the most recent figures.