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Passenger traffic pressures borough airports to expand

JetBlue Vice President Richard Smyth (l.), Queens Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jack Friedman and Port Authority Director of Aviation Susan Baer speak about the growing demands on airlines at the chamber's business expo. Photo by Rich Bockmann
TimesLedger Newspapers

John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports are being driven to expand by demand and global competition in a trend that promises a significant economic impact on Queens, a Port Authority executive said Wednesday.

The airline industry and Queens have been tied at the hip, even going back to May 8, 1919, when the first trans-Atlantic flight took off from the now-defunct naval air station in Breezy Point.

“It was true then and it’s been true ever since that Queens and the aviation industry were really made for each other,” Susan Baer, the Port Authority’s director of aviation, told the crowd that gathered at Resorts World Casino on the 94th anniversary of that flight for an airline industry expo.

Queens’ two airports counted more than 75 million passengers in 2012, and between them they employed 46,000 people who do everything from flying the planes to serving meals in the terminals, she said. Throughout the region, the airports support another 287,000 jobs related to the industry, and in Queens businesses like hotels, freight-forwarders and construction companies are some of the biggest to cash in on the $32 billion in economic activity the industry generates.

Queens is even home to New York’s hometown airline, JetBlue, which employees about 5,000 people in the borough. JetBlue is JFK’s busiest airline and it has been spending millions of dollars updating the airport’s Terminal 5. Richard Smyth, the airline’s vice president for corporate real estate, said JetBlue encourages business partnerships with local companies and said its website has a listing of contracts ranging from parts to construction bids.

Baer said the Port Authority is under Federal Aviation Administration requirements to partner with local businesses, and organizations such as the Council for Airport Opportunity are great places to match local businesses with the industry.

She and Smyth spoke at the Queens Chamber of Commerce’s Business Expo and Breakfast, an event for which the TimesLedger Newspapers was a sponsor.

Both Queens airports are facing growing demand to expand. La Guardia traffic jumped 6.5 percent last year to 25.7 million passengers, good enough to score the most growth in the Port Authority system, Baer said.

But LaGuardia’s central terminal is outdated, and she said replacing it is top on the agency’s list.

“The facility is old and it’s obsolete. It opened in 1964 to mark the 1964 World’s Fair — the dawn of the jet age,” Baer said. “The planes were smaller and there were far fewer people flying. It was designed to handle 8 million travelers and in 2012 it accommodated 12.5 million.”

Baer said the PA projects LaGuardia’s passenger load will grow to 18 million in 2030, and the agency is planning to release a request for proposal later this spring for a multibillion-dollar public/private partnership.

JFK’s cargo industry is facing competition from naval shipping and other airports across the country. The Port Authority recently released a study looking at ways to sharpen the airport’s competitive edge, such as expanding access through Queens roadways.

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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