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13th January
2004

First Published in The New York Sun, January 13, 2004

By Andrew Wolf

There is a famous story about Mayor La Guardia and the beginning of New York City’s primacy as a aviation hub.


Shortly after taking office in 1934, La Guardia traveled to Chicago and purchased a return ticket to New York on American Airlines. At that early time, only a few years after Charles Lindburgh’s historic flight to Paris, New York City had no commercial airport. La Guardia was savvy enough to understand that for the city to be competitive in the future, we had to invest in the infrastructure necessary to meet needs that at that time one could only speculate about. 
When his plane landed in Newark, the mayor refused to leave his seat. “My ticket says New York, I won’t get off until you bring me to New York City.” Red-faced airline officials, gave in. The plane took off and ferried the angry mayor to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. Not surprisingly, the plane was greeted with a phalanx of reporters. The presssavvy La Guardia had made his point. New York City needed an airport.

This was a period of New York City’s history when the interests of a dynamic local leadership — people such as La Guardia and now muchmaligned Robert Moses, and a national administration eager to use public funds to jump start the depression-ravaged economy, came together to build magnificent public works the scale of which is inconceivable today.

The force of La Guardia’s personality resulted in the airport project moving forward at remarkable speed. A site was found in northern Queens that was once used as an airfield. Primarily a wetlands area, it was enlarged by hundreds of acres of landfill. An army of 5,000 workers labored three shifts six days a week until the project was completed in 1939. The mayor himself was a frequent visitor to the construction site. Envisioning the airport of today, La Guardia enlisted David Rockefeller, fresh off the visionary construction of Rockefeller Center, to bring in shops and concessions.

When the “North Beach Field,” as it was popularly called was ready to open, Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons, a political opponent of the mayor, proposed to his colleagues on the Board of Estimate that the new facility be named La Guardia Airport. By unanimous vote, the board honored the man whose vision insured New York’s dominance as an air hub for generations.

So successful was La Guardia Airport that the visionary mayor broke ground for a second, larger airport just three years later at the site of the Idlewild Golf Course in southeastern Queens, the airport we now know as Kennedy Airport. Shortly after La Guardia left office, New York City foolishly gave up control of its own airports and perhaps our destiny to the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

As anyone who has compared what the Port Authority has done with Newark Airport as compared to the seediness of Kennedy and La Guardia, the inescapable conclusion is that New York got the short end of the stick.

I was at Kennedy Airport a couple of weeks ago, as that was the departure point for a short trip my wife and I took to Venice. As we waited for our flight in the dilapidated Delta terminal, water drip, drip, dripping from the ceiling into a plastic bin next to us, I wondered where the leadership will come from to restore New York to its former glory as a transport hub.

One of the reasons we decided on the Venice trip is the fairly recent introduction of nonstop flights between New York and Venice’s newly renovated Marco Polo airport. What a difference! Kennedy Airport is a public disgrace while Venice has a facility worthy of its great history. It seems that the negative comparison holds no matter where you’re flying. If you depart from Kennedy, you’re almost certainly headed to a better airport.

Improvements at Newark Airport makes it clear to see why former Mayor Giuliani felt that it was imperative for the city to seize control of the airports — not just for the revenue, even though the city was being scandalously short-changed on the rent — but in order to control our destiny.

That was the conclusion of a report commissioned by Mr. Giuliani by the investment firm of Rothschild, Inc., then headed by my former boss, the talented and perceptive Wilbur Ross. The report concluded that the giant sucking sound we have heard emanating from the two New York airports were our local dollars being funneled into New Jersey projects.

A recently announced deal would extend the airport leases, due to expire in 2015 to 2050. This is most attractive to the mayor and governor because it will bring short-term dollars to New York in the form of much higher rents and the settlement of prior claims. However, what we would be selling for this temporary fiscal fix may well be our future. La Guardia would not, I suspect, approve.

New York’s transportation woes aren’t confined just to the airports. Our passenger ship terminals are also troubled.

Last week came the news that one of the world’s major cruise lines, Royal Caribbean Cruises, will now berth its ships in Bayonne, N.J. rather than in the remaining piers on the west side. The Bayonne piers are just minutes away from the same Newark Airport at which Mr. La Guardia refused to disembark nearly 70 years ago. Bayonne! The Little Flower must be turning over in his grave.

There is also concern that the new Cunard super liner, the Queen Mary 2, will also end up in Bayonne. As it is, the ship’s maiden voyage, scheduled for next week, will take passengers from Southampton, England, to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That is a remarkable defeat for our city, in and of itself. Even as the cruise industry explodes, New York’s seedy passenger ship terminals are ensuring that we will minimize our historic advantage.

It is certainly not uncommon for cruise passengers to tack two or three days in the Big Apple onto their vacation package. However, if you get off the ship in Bayonne, my suspicion is that you will be more likely to get right on the plane in Newark to bring you straight home.

It now remains to be seen whether Mr. Bloomberg has the vision of La Guardia, or is just another pol looking for another one-shot fiscal fix.

© 2004 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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