Millions of passengers fly in and out of New York City—over 60 million in 2004—and all of them come to Queens to do it. By serving as home to our two major airports, Queens has earned its share of fame and notoriety, while creating countless first impressions on those visiting the Big Apple for the first time.
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 grew to over 5,000 acres and became the busiest airport serving the country’s largest city.
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.
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 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 served approximately 37.5 million passengers in 2004, making it the 15th-busiest airport in the world.
Just a short trip up the Van Wyck is Queens’ other aviation hub, LaGuardia Airport, which opened as a private flying field in 1929 and serves 24 million passengers per year. Originally named New York Municipal Airport, it opened to commercial traffic in 1939 and was renamed after Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in 1947, when it was leased to the Port Authority.
LaGuardia was the driving force behind the airport’s construction, when, upon arriving at Newark’s airport, he demanded to be flown to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn and pushed for an airport within the city limits. Engineers eventually began the process of creating a landfill on the site that would eventually become the airport.
By the 1960’s, traffic at LaGuardia became so heavy that the Port Authority created a “perimeter rule” that prevents flights of over 1,500 miles arriving at or departing from the airport, except on Saturdays and except for flights to and from Denver.
LaGuardia’s main terminal was destroyed by a bomb blast on December 29, 1975, killing 11 people and injuring over 50 others. The perpetrators were never found. The worst plane crash at the airport occurred in 1992, when USAir flight 405 skidded off the end of the runway, killing 27 people and injuring 24 others.