Will a Renovated LaGuardia Airport Still Be Mired in the 20th Century?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I have been flying into New York's LaGuardia Airport for three decades. And no matter how ugly it may be, LaGuardia is a desirable destination. Now if you could only get there, or get out of there.

When I travel, I walk out of my Atlanta home and onto a sleek subway train. I change trains once, and 40 minutes later I'm at the airport. I can usually get a decent breakfast. The security line moves well. I can take a free train ride to my concourse. It's easy and pleasant.

My kids call this place "Airport Land," and when you're in Airport Land you know the drill. Wear comfortable clothes. Have your credit card ready. Keep plenty of books with you and the tablet charged. Keep an eye on all carry-ons. Breathe. Be patient. You'll get there.

But if "there" is New York, it's a horror show that doesn't end at baggage claim. The terminals work, but the transportation into and out of the airport doesn't. Times Square is about as close to LaGuardia as Peachtree Center is to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (to give it its full name). But when you're standing outside LaGuardia, bag in hand, it's an ocean away.

That's because, just like the city itself, the airport is scaled far beyond what cars, trucks and buses can handle.

The $3.6 billion makeover announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo doesn't really address the problem.

Once, a decade ago, I hiked the mile or so to a bus stop outside the airport, then spent a pleasant hour on a bus and two trains to reach a destination near Union Square. Despite it being 80 degrees with stifling humidity, it was the nicest introduction to Manhattan I have ever had.

Maybe it's because I live in Atlanta, but I don't care about LaGuardia's amenities and I don't even care if it's ugly. I'm not living at the airport. I'm going to the airport, I'm coming from the airport, and I'm going through the airport to go somewhere else.

The last time I visited Manhattan, for an event at TheStreet.com, it took 90 minutes for my cab to find a way to Wall Street. I got to see the whole Upper East Side, and much of Yorkville. But frankly I'd rather get stuck on Chris Christie's George Washington Bridge. There is no more hopeless feeling in the world than being stuck in a cab which is stuck in some place you don't recognize.

A $13 bus ride is a nice option if you can find it, but in today's LaGuardia it's usually hidden. The Q70 bus to Woodside just started running in September

If you're going to put $3.6 billion into improving service to the airport, why not put one of those billion into getting transit to them?

All it took to block all access to LaGuardia yesterday was about 1,000 people demonstrating at a bridge outside it. They could not do that in Atlanta. They could not do that at most major airports. Not because they would be arrested, but because it's freeway all the way into the terminal and they would get run over.

Some things about LaGuardia can't be fixed. Its two runways have to cross one another to account for the changing crosswinds. That's not the case at Atlanta or Los Angeles International Airport, which have  five and four runways, respectively.  Plus, those runways are parallel to one another because the wind direction is very reliable.

Still, despite LaGuardia's horrors for visitors and, some say, workers, it remains a highly desirable place to do business because there's so much business to be done.

When a smaller airport gets a slot into LaGuardia it is big news back home. American Airlines' (AAL) divesting 17 slots into LaGuardia is going to be a gold mine for Southwest Airlines (LUV) and Virgin America.

The planes going into and out of LaGuardia are going to get bigger as a result of these changes, which means more people coming to the airport, and more going out. While it might be nice to have another Starbucks (SBUX) in LaGuardia's Airport Land, I'd feel a lot better if I could go train-to-train from my home to the office, and not feel like I've arrived in the Third World, standing outside a New York baggage claim.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.


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