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New York City's LaGuardia Airport reboots itself in US$4b makeover

New York governor hails its potential to energise the state's economy after months of lockdown

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New York Port Authority director Rick Cotton hopes that the new building will spur a resurgence in air travel.

New York 

NEW York's LaGuardia Airport - famously derided as "third-world" by former US Vice-President Joe Biden - will take a big leap forward on Saturday when its cramped, 56-year-old Central Terminal is jettisoned for an airy, art-filled US$4 billion replacement.

It will be a notable milestone for an international airport long maligned as dingy and decrepit.

But there will not be many travellers around to enjoy the new arrivals and departures hall in Terminal B, because the novel coronavirus pandemic has brought air traffic to a near standstill.

The number of passengers using this and other airports that serve New York City has dropped by about 95 per cent since the virus swept through the world.

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Airlines have slashed their schedules, tourist attractions have been shuttered, and businesses have grounded their employees.

The drastic decline in movement made for a muted celebration in the gleaming new terminal on Wednesday.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who has made rebuilding New York City's airports one of his main missions, announced the opening and cut a ceremonial ribbon with a small retinue of invited guests, all of whom wore masks.

Absent were the throngs of elected officials and hangers-on who have shown up for the various groundbreakings and unveilings at LaGuardia since Mr Cuomo announced five years ago that the airport would be completely rebuilt.

Still, the governor was clearly pleased, calling the new terminal "really breathtaking" and saying it was the type of large-scale development project that could energise the reopening of the state's economy after months of lockdown.

"We needed this today," he said. "We needed to see New York stand up and shine."

The pandemic did not significantly affect the completion of the main terminal, he said. But the drop in traffic has allowed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates LaGuardia, to accelerate construction of the roadways at the airport, he said.

With the opening of the 840,000 sq ft building, the overhaul of LaGuardia will be more than halfway complete.

At the east end of the airport, Delta Air Lines is building a replacement for another terminal that is scheduled to open by the end of next year.

The replacement of the old Central Terminal, which opened in 1964, has been planned for a decade. But it was Mr Biden's mocking statement several years ago that changed everything.

Mr Cuomo took offence and ordered the Port Authority to think bigger and create a truly 21st-century airport. LaGuardia was an "embarrassment" to the city and the state, he said.

It also was widely reviled by travellers. A survey last year by J D Power & Associates ranked LaGuardia as the worst large airport in the US.

"I just want it to be fixed," said Julian Shiff, a Brooklyn resident who had arrived from Denver on Wednesday. "None of the New York airports are good."

Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority, said that New York's airports have been "substandard" and that LaGuardia had become a laughing stock in skits on Saturday Night Live.

"The experience at LaGuardia was disgraceful," he said after leading a tour of the new terminal. He pointed with pride to the newest security screening technology, the contactless system for ordering food and the much larger restrooms.

He hoped that the new building, filled with shops and restaurants that evoke New York, would spur a resurgence in air travel.

"Providing travellers with a first-class airport experience is a today issue," Mr Cotton said.

"Air traffic will come back," he added. "There will be a vaccine, and people will lose their fear of getting on planes."

Before the pandemic, LaGuardia was busier than it had ever been, despite all the construction that made getting in and out aggravating. Its short runways were overburdened, and delays were among the worst of any US airport.

The rebuilt airport will sit on the same small piece of land, wedged between the Grand Central Parkway and the East River.

But the new terminals have been moved closer to the highway, creating more space for airplanes to taxi to and from gates, but no more space to take off and land.

Mr Cotton spoke to reporters on an elevated walkway 30m above the ground, under which airplanes will be able to pass after the old Central Terminal is demolished.

That demolition will begin this month, after the switch to Terminal B is completed.

Among the features of the new terminal are an outdoor dining area that will offer views of the Manhattan skyline and jets taking off and landing near the water's edge.

It also has an indoor area for passengers to wait for taxis, and eventually will have a station for an AirTrain that will connect to the subway line and the Long Island Rail Road, Mr Cotton said. NYTIMES

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