The Electrical Worker online
February 2022

From 'Third World' to First Class:
The New LaGuardia
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The new LaGuardia Airport in Queens, N.Y., is one of the most complicated construction projects in American history and it is being completed two years ahead of schedule and 100% union built.

"Building a modern, world-class airport while maintaining and operating the existing one — one that served New York but unfortunately had seen better days and needed an upgrade — was certainly a challenge. The IBEW and the NYC Building Trades have accomplished something extraordinary that will honor former Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia's legacy for decades to come," said New York Local 3 Business Manager and International Executive Council Chairman Christopher Erikson.

The new LaGuardia is a gleaming jewel on Flushing Bay: two soaring terminals that tower above the decrepit, low-ceilinged mishmash of terminals they replace, six new concourses with more than 70 gates, two sky bridges, two miles of new taxiway, two substations, two new centralized utility buildings and 1 megawatt of solar panels worth every bit of the budgeted $8 billion, split evenly between the new Terminal B and the Delta Terminal.

At peak in 2018 there were 650 Local 3 members on site from more than 25 contractors, an average between 300 and 400 at a time, said third-generation Local 3 member Tom McCann, who has been a steward at both terminals since construction began in 2016.

"Something like a quarter of Local 3's Construction Division has been through this project at some point," he said. "You walk down the concourses, you've got Delta, Port Authority and TSA security, the cameras, the Wi-Fi; don't forget about the lights and the runways and the screens, kiosks and substations … just the quality across the board and the pride in our work is tremendous."

Not only is it the first entirely new airport — runways excluded — to open in the U.S. since the Denver International in 1995, but for the four years of construction before COVID-19 struck, 30 million passengers and hundreds of flights per day moved through the construction site.

"I don't think there will be another project anywhere near as challenging anytime soon. The highly skilled craftspersons of the NYC Building Trades have built many modern wonders in our city, and this successful project, 100% union-built under a PLA, is a testament to why every job should be union-built," Erikson said.

The Old LaGuardia

Until very recently, LaGuardia was the worst airport in America.

This is not an opinion. LaGuardia finished dead last in the J.D. Power 2017 airport satisfaction study. Not coincidentally, that same year, LaGuardia experienced the worst delays for arriving flights in the U.S., according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

President Joe Biden famously shamed LaGuardia in 2014 when he was still vice president, telling a Philadelphia audience, "If I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia airport in New York, you must think, 'I must be in some Third World country.'"

Biden thundered on over some nervous laughter.

"I'm not joking," he said. "It's embarrassing, and it's stupid. It's stupid."

Why was LaGuardia so uniquely bad? First, like all things, airports get worse as they get older and at just over 40 years, American airports are, on average, the oldest in the world.

But LaGuardia was also uniquely bad because it kept adding infrastructure just before momentous changes in the airline industry.

The first terminal, Terminal A, opened in 1939 and wasn't even built for planes. The so-called "Marine terminal" was built to handle Pan Am's flying boats, clippers that landed in Long Island Sound. Unfortunately, transatlantic sea planes were phased out about a decade later.

Terminal B, the main terminal, was rolled out in 1964, just before airplanes doubled in size, leaving gates with too little seating and inefficient spacing for the bigger aircraft. The runways are surrounded on three sides by water and so notoriously short that pilots have called it USS LaGuardia and compared landing there to plonking a jetliner on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of New York City.

Terminal C opened in 1992, less than a decade before 9/11 upended security requirements, leaving the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey scrambling to cram checkpoints where they were never meant to be.

LaGuardia was also stuffed between the Grand Central Parkway and Flushing Bay, leaving no room to grow. Airport access was limited to cars, cabs and buses, and terrible traffic often spilled into the surrounding neighborhoods. LaGuardia sat stranded without a rail connection, one of only two major airports on the East Coast without one.

That problem has been partially resolved with the new roads and traffic patterns, however public transportation will eventually improve it dramatically.

What was left was too many people in too little airport, each facility not fit for purpose, disconnected one from the next.

And yet, LaGuardia was also indispensable. The same year it was ranked worst it was also the 12th busiest airport in the U.S.

It was obvious that LaGuardia had to be torn down and just as obvious it could never close. It stumbled along, updated but never improved.

The Biden roast put an end to half measures. In 2015, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, at the peak of his power, killed a four-year-old public-private partnership mired in delays and small thinking. He announced an audacious plan to build a completely new airport right on top of the old one.

"One of the most hated airports in the U.S. will be transformed into one of the best," said Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Executive Director Rick Cotton when the rebuild was announced.

One Bite at a Time

How do you build a new airport on top of the most densely used airport in the U.S., serving 166,600 travelers per acre of passenger facility?

Every step would seem to make things worse, and you can't fly in the more than 7,000 80- to 20-foot piles and 40,000 tons of steel. The nearest available space for a layup yard was three miles away.

The first major project was the 3,100-space, 7-level parking garage — the largest precast building of its kind on the East Coast, according to signatory contractor Allan Briteway.

They broke ground within weeks of the plan announcement and the garage partially opened in 2017. It has a 5kv substation with enough power to build out a promised 600 electrical vehicle charging stations.

"Just that garage was 200 sisters and brothers," said Terminal B Steward Joe Magel, a 40-year member of Local 3.

Before the new parking garage even opened, the existing 1960s-era parking deck next to Terminal B came down and initial work began on the new 850,000 square-foot headhouse, which combines ticketing, baggage and security.

Construction of a temporary concourse also began in 2016, a handful of gates that would allow some of the eastern most concourse of Terminal B to come down to make room to begin the new Concourse B.

One of three historic hangars then made way for the CHiRP, the consolidated HVAC and utilities building and a substation.

Construction on the 1.3 million square foot Delta headhouse began two years later in 2018.

A Ballet of Steel and Glass

Progress continued stepwise. A replacement for something was built and then the original was knocked down, making space for the next new facility and the demolition of what it replaced.

For example, half of Concourse B opened with access from a temporary pedestrian bridge, allowing a portion of Terminal B to come down where the rest of Concourse B was built.

The Terminal B redesign not only made it more pleasant for people to get to planes, it made the airside more efficient. The old Terminal B was a "finger" style airport where the main headhouse served as the palm of a hand and the four concourses spread out like fingers, with gates on both sides. Airplanes were pushed back to a single taxiway.

The new LaGuardia connects the main headhouse to twin L-shaped island concourses with 400-foot-long pedestrian bridges that rise nearly 60 feet over the former terminal. When the old headhouse comes down, planes from both concourses will have a second path to the runways under the skybridges and can use their own power to get there.

For some travelers, the highlight of Terminal B when it opened in spring of 2020 might have been the 25,000 square foot mural of clouds and New York icons or the 5-ton sculpture hanging from the ceiling.

But for the electrical work connoisseur, it would have been the ocean of low voltage work on display from the LED screens and variable lighting or the power outlets and USB ports at every one of the thousands of seats in the terminal and concourses.

Both terminals have the kind of advanced, energy-saving building control systems that have become common, including auto-dimming windows and adjustable LED lighting.

Also brand new in both terminals is the latest and greatest in baggage handling automation, with permanent magnet motors and motor controls that allow parts of the system to run only when a bag is present. Routing is handled by an array of optical readers, sensors, even robots that grab bags if they need human inspection. Not only is it faster, it is less likely to break down and uses almost 40% less power.

"We had 75-100 members on the baggage projects the whole time," McCann said. "And all that low voltage work was paid at the same A-rate as all other work."

COVID-19's Challenges and Opportunities

And then a catastrophe hit. New York felt COVID before any other place in America. Hospitals and then morgues filled. New York City closed. It was a traumatic beginning to an era-defining crisis that isn't over.

Airports are usually noisy places, McCann said. That ended in March 2020.

"It was eerie. Normally, you walk in, you can hear the whine of the engines. They're always warming up. For a month you didn't hear anything. There wasn't a sound," he said.

Safety protocols on the job site slowed work down in some limited ways at first, but in others, the silent terminals and empty runways made unthinkable progress possible.

"A lot of projects shut down in the first days, but when they were deeming construction projects essential, this was essential. It didn't skip a beat," Magel said. "There may have been one or two areas where there have been some cases, but after the first few days, we never stopped."

The lack of passengers solved nearly every logistical problem, including the daily nightmare of bringing 2,400 professional and trade workers represented by more than two dozen unions into an already difficult-to-reach airport. When COVID shut down travel, Magel's commute time went down by more than an hour. Each way.

The Delta Terminal went from a few months behind schedule in 2019 to nearly two years ahead of schedule, though plans to build four all-new concourses have been scaled back. One of the new Delta concourses is already open, two more will be built from the ground up, but the fourth is now only a gut rehab. All the work there is scheduled to wrap up by 2025.

A Bright Future

The second skybridge from Terminal B was scheduled to open in January, nearly finishing work there. The Delta headhouse is scheduled to open this spring and at that point the new LaGuardia will be substantially complete.

The only major project left is the construction of the Central Hall connecting the two terminals.

The $2 billion rail link to the subway system may not survive Cuomo's abrupt resignation from office last August. It was already controversial when Gov. Kathy Hochul put the whole thing on hold just days after taking over.

This isn't necessarily bad news. One of the alternatives, extending the existing N-line subway, is not only more popular with local residents, the $10 billion project would put a lot of electricians to work.

New LaGuardia is part of a national airport construction boom with more than 50 airports starting reconstruction between 2010 and 2015, including Orlando, O'Hare, Los Angeles International and Salt Lake City. The other two major airports serving New York City, John F. Kennedy International and Newark International, are both undergoing significant transformations as well.

But none was as ambitious as LaGuardia, and there won't be anything like it again for a very long time, if ever.

"Some jobs have a lot of people, and some jobs go on for a long time, but I've never seen anything like this for length, for number of brothers and sisters on the job and for complexity," McCann said. "That's how big the challenge was."


The gleaming new LaGuardia Airport stands in stark contrast to the 1930s-era facility that President Joe Biden once compared to a developing country.


One of LaGuardia's new external skybridges connecting the Terminal B headhouse to the concourses.


The early stages of the Terminal B headhouse in 2017 show the scale of the project, with passengers still arriving and airplanes loading in the background.


Local 3 A-Telephone Division member Anthony Trusso works on the fiber backbone of the Delta Terminal.


A-Telephone member Mario Zumbo with one of Terminal C's security data racks.


Foreman Scott Wing checks terminations in the Delta Terminal's E concourse.


The infrastructure of the new LaGuardia is a sea of low-voltage wiring, including electronically shaded windows looking onto the runways.