LaGuardia upgrades: Lipstick on a pig?

Gov. Cuomo: LaGuardia is 'un-New York'
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Gov. Cuomo: LaGuardia is 'un-New York' 01:11

Story highlights

  • LaGuardia is set to get a $4 billion overhaul
  • Les Abend: LaGuardia is one of the more challenging airports in the United States

Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 30 years of flying experience. He is also a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Credit is due Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia for having the vision to plop down a major commercial airport on a small piece of New York real estate back in 1937. Back then, many considered the project to build LaGuardia a boondoggle, and its construction and expansion of runways with landfill material perhaps inevitably led to the not-so-affectionate name of "LaGarbage" being given to New York's first commercial airport.

Vice President Joe Biden seemed to be channeling such sentiments last year, when he noted, "If I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you'd think, 'I must be in some third-world country.'"
And while as the years progressed many improvements have been made, the airport still retains numerous remnants from the past. Indeed, the truth is that the improvements have mostly been a case of putting lipstick on a pig.
    Les Abend
    Let's hope the overhaul announced this week by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo isn't just $4 billion worth of lipstick.
    From a passenger's perspective, the obvious place to begin a renovation is with the terminals. I cringe knowing that my passengers have to endure infrastructure and décor circa the 1960s. Waiting lounges are crammed and uncomfortable. Ceiling heights, mostly at the main terminal, are a claustrophobic nightmare.
    Because of limited space, Transportation Security Administration security lines overflow into every nook and cranny. Meanwhile, cramped areas create anxiety (as if the travel experience itself doesn't add to the stress). Feng shui, it seems, has taken a back seat to functionality, and so we can only hope that a talented architect can design a more pleasing environment.
    From what we know so far, it appears that many of these issues will be addressed with the renovation. And physically connecting the entire airport together is a great idea; I can't tell you on how many occasions a distraught passenger has grabbed my attention and asked for the best way to get to other terminals. The chaos of buses and taxis outside is an embarrassment. What impression are we projecting to visitors from various parts of the globe, let alone visitors from across the country? Who wouldn't find the experience nerve-racking?
    Another problem is getting to and from the airport; LaGuardia needs to be more accessible to Manhattan by mass transit, as in trains and ferry boats. Hopefully, this can also be accomplished with the project; surely the taxi community can survive.
    The American Airlines' end of the terminal includes the original hangars from the 1930s. The buildings are landmarks, but they have been patched and repaired for almost 80 years. The interior is more suitable for a prison than airline administration offices. It is time to dismantle at least one hangar to increase ramp space, which apparently is a proposed part of the renovation. Perhaps designing a building that integrates the old with the new will preserve the historic character, especially the outside facade.
    Another issue is the airport's limited range. Back in 1984, the Port Authority imposed a 1,500-mile destination restriction for all flights departing LaGuardia from Sunday to Friday, with Denver being the exception. The main reason for the restriction was to maintain business for JFK and Newark, preserving these other two New York airports for transcontinental and international travel.
    The other reason was to reduce the size of airplanes utilizing LaGuardia. Because of runway load-bearing capability, larger wide-body airliners have to reduce weight and thus fuel-carrying capacity. But with new fuel-efficient technology, smaller airplanes can travel farther. Once the new construction is complete, it's time to lift the 1,500-mile restriction and allow the marketplace to dictate the terms. Yes, New York slot restrictions may have to be re-evaluated, and a fierce battle for the transcontinental routes will ensue among the airlines. But at the end of the day, consumers will have more choices.
    And last but not least, pilots consider LaGuardia one of the more challenging airports in the United States. Its limited real estate offers limited runway length -- 7,000 feet to be exact (most major airports have runways that average 10,000 feet). On a dry, nonweather day, landing and departing from LaGuardia is just a matter of being methodical with procedures and flying skills. But during a January snowstorm, well, experience and judgment become important factors. And on some days, pilots just have to say "no."
    It doesn't have to be this way. The construction technology exists to lengthen the runways farther over the water at LaGuardia. And while difficulties may be encountered in regard to redesigning approaches and departures for longer runways such that they don't conflict with existing obstructions, these problems have solutions. Increasing runway length should therefore be a serious consideration.
    I'm all in favor of a relaxing, contemporary travel environment, and a food court that offers more than a waterlogged hot dog. But without serious improvements to its aviation infrastructure, LaGuardia is the same airport. Let's not just put lipstick on a pig.