After almost 40 years of operation, the TWA Flight Center was closed in October 2001, just before TWA itself ceased to exist (the airline was absorbed into American Airlines).
Thankfully, the TWA Flight Center had been able to acquire landmark status and escape the wrecking ball, contrary to other illustrious JFK terminals such as the Pan Am Worldport and the Sundrome,
A new Terminal 5, operated by JetBlue, opened on October 22, 2008. The entry hall of the newer Gensler designed terminal wraps around the former terminal in a crescent shape. Although the old satellite buildings, called "Flight Wing One" and "Flight Wing Two", were demolished, the original tube connectors leading passengers from the terminal building, called the "head house", were retained.
After standing empty for nearly two decades, the TWA Flight Center found a new life. In May 2019, the TWA Hotel opened to the public. Although commercially the hotel has had a bumpy take-off, it has become a place of pilgrimage for aviation geeks from around the world.
However, did you know that back in 1990 a plan was developed to expand the TWA Flight Center? If built, the terminal might still have been with us today as a working terminal, instead of a hotel.
A 1990 PLAN FOR A REVAMPED TWA FLIGHT CENTER
By the 1980s, the deficiencies of the TWA Flight Center had become very apparent. The terminal had too little of everything: gates, check-in space, baggage handling facilities, curb space, etc.
In 1990, Trans World Airlines--at the time still in a relatively healthy state--commissioned Perkins and Will to work on a redevelopment project for its whole JFK complex, which by then included the former National terminal, a.k.a. the Sundrome.
NEW FLIGHT WING TWO
The most radical feature of the proposed scheme was a complete replacement of the original Flight Wing Two satellite building. It would be replaced by a "Y"-shaped 20-gate concourse, with most stands being able to accommodate wide-body aircraft.
Having been opened in 1970, Flight Wing One, was still a relatively young structure at the time, and thus was maintained with an extension being added.
A new Federal Inspection Services (FIS) facility, "meeters and greeters" hall and arrival roadway would be built in a curved shape around the iconic TWA head house.
These were all planned to be depressed below the apron level to preserve the openness and views to the airfield from the head house. Wow!
FLIGHT CENTER BECOMES CHECK-IN FACILITY
The head house itself would be used for check-in. One of the adjoining wings would have been expanded to accommodate more check-in desks for international flights.
The famous concrete connector tubes leading from the head house to the flight wings would have been replaced with glassed-in tubes equipped with escalators.
Interestingly, in the original design for the Flight Center, the tubes featured escalators and a glass roof. However, the design was simplified in an attempt to contain the cost of the project.
CONNECTION BETWEEN TERMINALS
The then-existing corridor between the Flight Center and the Sundrome would be replaced with a large connecting structure, containing baggage transfer facilities and an expanded domestic baggage claim area.
In between the terminal was a people mover station. The tracks would lead to a newly-built central terminal building, which was part of the shelved JFK 2000 Master Plan (which will be discussed in a later article).
See more from the models and renditions of the plan below.
The plan aroused great public concern and a campaign was launched to protect the Flight Center, which culminated in the Landmarks Preservation Commission granting landmark status for the exterior and some of the interiors on July 19, 1994. In addition, the protection status included Flight Wing Two in its entirety.
In the end, the redevelopment did not go ahead as TWA reduced the scale of its operations and retrenched back to the Saarinen building.
The rest, as they say, is airport history!
Even after 30 years, the proposed design for the expansion of the TWA Flight Center still looks pretty nice! It also seemed to be an effective solution as well, providing a huge expansion, while still being very respectful toward the original Flight Center head house--even putting the arrival facilities below grade just to maintain a nice ramp view from the lounge!
I was not able to locate any budget estimates but it seemed like it was a costly solution. Even in 1990, TWA was not in a state to afford a project like that. Alas, it did not come to be.
As an airport planner and fan, I actually don't like terminals being converted to alternative uses such as shopping malls, entertainment centers or hotels. The best use of an airport terminal is...as an airport terminal.
Having said this, the most important thing is the that the Flight Center is still around and I'm happy to have it anyway I can!
What are your thoughts on the scheme? Would it have been a better solution? Let us know in the comments below!
I would like to thank Audrey Barsella of Perkins & Will. Without her kind assistance this article would not have been possible.
With a title inspired by the setting of the iconic 70s film "Airport", this blog is the ultimate destination for airport history fans.
Marnix (Max) Groot Founder of AirportHistory.org. Max is an airport development expert and historian.