2009-07-15 / Features

JFK Airport' Tells Story Of U.S. Commercial Aviation


John F. Kennedy International Airport
Joshua Stoff
Arcadia Publishing
ISBN: 9780738564685
128 Pages

On Tuesday, July 14, 2009, Shell Hydrogen, along with Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and General Motors announced the opening of the first hydrogen fueling station in New York City, part of the world's first metropolitan cluster of stations and a critical part of the nation's alternative energy infrastructure, at Building 141, Federal Circle at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The hydrogen fueling station is the latest addition to the airport, which has been undergoing almost continuous construction and upgrading of its facilities since it opened in 1948.

Joshua Stoff, curator of the Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island and a noted aviation historian, recounts JFK International's 61-year history in the latest addition to Arcadia Publishing's Images of Aviation series, the title of which is the same as the name of the airport known as New York International Airport—Idlewild Field when it first opened. John F. Kennedy International Airport, like Stoff's LaGuardia Airport (Arcadia Publishing, 2008), concentrates its store of written information in the Introduction and then lets the captions to the pictures in the book's five chapters (Before JFK: 1931-1944; First Years: 1945-1950; Taking Off: 1951- 1960; The Jet Age: 1961-1990, and JFK Today: 1991-2009) convey the rest of the narrative. The photographs themselves represent a triumph over adversity; many of the original images were lost in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center of Sept. 11, 2001, but Stott had previously made copies of many of the images, thereby preserving them. Many are published for the first time in this book.

The airport has never been accorded its formal title, Major General Alexander Anderson Airport, even though the City Council voted to name the facility for Anderson, a World War I hero (Stott does not give a date of the vote). Informally named for the golf course on which it was built, a marshy tideland on the southeastern shore of Long Island facing Jamaica Bay, the airport has never been known as anything other than Idlewild and later JFK.

Owing to its having more space to expand, JFK from its inception was able to accommodate passenger aircraft developed after World War II with longer range and greater capacity and now handles intercontinental and transcontinental U.S. flights, while its smaller, older sibling, LaGuardia, is a base for shorter flights in the eastern half of the North American continent. Its designers also left room for terminal facilities. Originally, Idlewild Airport's ground structures consisted of a temporary terminal, a row of war surplus Quonset huts and scattered buildings serving as cargo sheds and machine shops. The Port Authority, operator of the airport since its beginnings, constructed the International Arrivals Building, but remaining terminals were left to the airlines that operated them and the result has been a variety of styles, with some noteworthy structures designed by prominent architects of the day. "By the mid- 1960s, the airport was a model of how a major international airport should look and operate." Stott declares. "Like a living creature, the airport steadily grew and evolved over time." He adds that unlike LaGuardia, JFK has been under continuous construction since it opened, a situation likely to remain the same for the foreseeable future. The largest of the three airports operated by the Port Authority (the third being Newark Airport, otherwise known as Liberty International), JFK now covers some 5,000 acres, creates 200,000 jobs, generates $10 billion in wages and salaries and contributes $30 million to New York City economic activity annually. The principal gateway to the United States, JFK handles some 50,000 international travelers daily and more than 47 million passengers annually. Some 100 airlines from more than 50 countries land and take off from its two parallel pairs of runways.

Chapter One, Before JFK: 1931-1944, holds much of the material found in LaGuardia Airport and goes on to detail the site selection process for the airport to become known as Idlewild and then JFK. Chapter Two, First Years: 1945-1950, as the title indicates, describes the early years as the airport was built and operations commenced. The airport did, indeed, take off as the third chapter Taking Off: 1951-1960, describes. Airlines from all over the world took off from and landed at the facility; for example, the first transatlantic commercial jet flight, a British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) Comet 4 from London landed at Idlewild on Oct. 4, 1958.

The Jet Age: 1961- 1990, details the explosive growth in passenger miles flown after jet airplanes were introduced and the concomitant expansion of airport facilities after these longer, faster planes took over the skies. The airport became John F. Kennedy International airport in December 1963; a month after the 35th president was assassinated. Some of the airport's most architecturally striking terminal facilities were built during this period, and some notable passengers used them, including world heavyweight champion boxer Muhammed Ali, then going by his birth name of Cassius Clay, and the British singing sensation The Beatles. JFK was also the first facility to use jetways for passengers to board their planes. English and French Supersonic Transports (SSTs) first flew into and out of JFK in 1977. (SSTs became financially unfeasible and the last such plane landed at JFK on Oct. 24, 2003.)

Chapter Five, JFK Today: 1991-2009, starts with noting that the Port Authority committed to spend more than $5 million on a new construction program between 1990 and 2005 and eventually built a $10 million airport from the ground up. The JFK control tower has the most advanced air traffic control equipment in the U.S. and new airline terminals have sprung up, along with facilities for handling increasing volumes of air cargo. Travel time between JFK and Midtown Manhattan has been cut to 30 minutes with the advent of the 8.1- mile AirTrain people mover in 2003.

"JFK Airport has witnessed the steady progress of commercial aviation for over 60 year and certainly will for many decades to come," Stott rightly concludes. The story of John F. Kennedy International Airport is the story of commercial aviation in the United States. The book that bears its name is an invaluable addition to the library of anyone who follows the history of flight. Anyone who just likes a good read will enjoy and learn from it as well.

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