The TWA Hotel at JFK – Boundless potential, Boundless Incompetence
Y'all may know that I am a major nerrrrrd for aviation. Ever since I was a kid, I couldn't wait to get on my next plane. I made paper cutouts of every plane I could imagine with every airline's colors, which my mother displayed proudly in her cubicle. My favorite movie was a zany kids' documentary called "Amazing Airplanes" which I think I could still recite to you verbatim. As a toddler I even (briefly and with extensive supervision) piloted a Cessna 152 for a few minutes on approach to Sun Valley. It's been quite the journey from my one-flight-per-year-to-Minneapolis childhood to the frequent flier I am today, and yet I am still just as addicted as on day one.
I keep my eyes on various blogs and sites for fellow nerrrrrds of aviation and noticed a few months ago that there was a buzz about the old TWA Flight Center at JFK being converted into a hotel, and not just a hotel, but an homage to the now-defunct airline and the glamour of the 1960s Jet Age. When it opened in May, people in my nerrrrrd community were really Jones-ing for a stay. So naturally, when it came time for me to find a place to stay in NYC after my flight back from Italy, the TWA Hotel was my nerrrrrrdy choice.
Back in the 1950s, JFK was called "Idlewild Airport" and was just starting to become the main NYC hub for a lot of airlines; TWA was still operating its international NYC flights out of La Guardia (shudder) before a plan was drafted in 1955 to have each major airline build their own JFK terminal with another shared terminal for the smaller airlines. Eero Saarinen, a Finnish-American architect known at the time for his futurist style, was commissioned to create TWA's new terminal at JFK. The building reflects this futurism, and the winged roof is a clear nod to the purpose of the building as a center for the future of aviation.
When it opened in 1962, it was one of the first terminals in the world with enclosed jet bridges, baggage carousels, terminal-wide announcements, and an electric departures/arrivals board, among other things. Unfortunately, it also opened when air travel was starting to change dramatically, with more passengers, greater security issues, and the advent of the "jet age," with increasingly large planes that needed more room. The glamour of the advent of the Jet Age, however, was apparent in the terminal's futuristic design. NYC named it a historical landmark in 1994 and it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
In 2001, when TWA finally croaked after a decade of hardship and was sold to AA, the building was vacated and sat empty. JetBlue now operates a terminal where the pier structures used to be, T5, which opened in 2008, but they didn't make use of the TWA Flight Center.
The hotel was announced in 2015 and broke ground in 2016. MCR Development, who tends to focus on lower-end properties (more on that later lol), oversaw the project and manages the hotel, and added two satellite buildings with hotel rooms connected to the original corridors that connected the TWA Flight Center headhouse to the piers. The goal was to be as authentically '60s as possible. TWA chili-pepper red adorns nearly every fabric surface, along with brass fixtures and every touch imaginable to evoke the history of the place. The original sunken lounge has been recreated with the chili pepper fabric and Saarinen-inspired furniture. The Paris Café has been reopened under the hand of Jean-Georges Vongerichten. And the massive flight announcement boards, clicking one letter at a time to change displays, are still in place.
Some other cool amenities not original to the flight center include a rooftop terrace (on one of the new buildings) with an infinity pool and a bar that overlooks the JFK tarmac between T4 and T5, a flight museum, and perhaps the most awesome, a refurbished Lockheed Constellation Starliner that was shipped to JFK and parked between the headhouse and T5, and converted into a bar.
I had been looking around at reviews of the place in its first few weeks open in advance of my stay and the theme seemed to be consistent: awesome place, terrible execution. I'd heard repeated horror stories of rooms not ready for hours on end, things not working in the room, bizarre details in the room, poor staff, insanely high prices, etc., all within the context of "this really is a fantastic place and idea." I had hoped these details were just growing pains for the brand new hotel, and that by my visit, things would be sorted out.
I arrived at JFK from Milan at about 6:45 PM; I was already kinda bummed and grumpy––it is tough to go from spending time with the "Bad Boys" every day in Italy to being completely by yourself suddenly. I also felt gross and exhausted and just needed a place to sit, and the unnecessarily complicated voyage over to the TWA Hotel on the AirTrain from T4 to T5 and navigating T5's little maze to get to the hotel did not help. By the time I arrived, my pessimism was running pretty high, and I wasn't nearly as jazzed as I thought I would be for the stay.
However, as I explored, I became as enchanted by the place itself as I expected, and I was able to sort out the positive from the negative. Still, there's a lot to the complaints about the place thus far, and my experience was pretty damn consistent with a lot of them.
Let's go through some things that the hotel is doing really well:
The place is so cool, especially the lobby. They really have done an amazing job bringing this back to life. The building itself is incredible and needs no introduction. The sunken lounge is beautiful and comfy, and even has the Connie right outside the big windows that would have looked out onto the tarmac (and hence the parked Starliners) back in 1962. The big boards are awesome, and click and change displays every few minutes. The board on the way to the front of the lobby has "flight information," and I can't help but to think how cool it would be for them to put ACTUAL real-time flight info at JFK on that board rather than stock 1960s-esque info. There are a bunch of awesome museum-like displays with old art, FA uniforms, etc. that are really cool to explore as well.
The rooms and the design details are really nice and well-done. The buildings flanking the headhouse may be brand new, but the details, like the red carpet, white stone, and brass accents, make them look like a modern take on the 60s. The rooms carry the same aesthetic, and the retro light fixtures, seating, etc. are really evocative. The little details are also awesome––the martini bar, 1960s TIME Magazine, vintage water glasses with the TWA logo, rotary phones... it's clear the design team really thought out every detail. Moreover, you will hardly hear a peep out of the roaring jet engines coming down the runway due to the 6-inch-thick soundproof glass in each room.
The music is incredible. They really did a great job with the "soundtrack." I found myself just sitting down in the sunken lounge for the music alone. Big late 50s and 60s classics and hits that really evoke the era. Particularly cool when having a drink inside the Connie.
The pool is awesome and the views are an nerrrrrrd's dream. The weather was terrible the night I was there, with temps below 65, and a big storm was approaching, so I didn't get to use the pool at all, and only had about 20 minutes on the roof. However, I can see a world on a sunny day where I spent hours upon hours up here in/near the pool watching the planes. JFK is a planespotter's dream, especially T4, and despite the chilly weather, I really enjoyed watching aircraft after aircraft barrel down 22R, paired with my PlaneSpotter app which told me exactly where they were going.
The Constellation is one of the coolest bar concepts ever. The Starliner was bought by the property from an airfield in Maine and refurbished with TWA colors, and modeled on the inside like the iconic corridors from the headhouse to the wings and T5. They included original TWA Connie seats in the middle of the bar (wow, economy class was dope back then) and modeled the remainder of the plane like the sunken lounge inside (including the soundtrack of 60s hits). The bar is at the back of the Connie, and you can enter and take photos of the cockpit up front. The design inside is a bit spatially odd, but I absolutely loved hanging out in here, and when the rain started pouring, I was perfectly happy to order another martini. The design around the Connie is cool, too, with a painted "runway" and lights like a tarmac.
There's a lot they need to fix, however, to let this place really shine to full potential:
Everything is almost laughably expensive. I don't even want to tell you what I paid for my (very small) runway-view (not really that much of a view) room, a room they didn't even have available when I checked in! On the roof, I coughed up $10 for a draft IPA, and the drinks in the Connie were anywhere from $16–20. I have heard that the meals at the revamped Paris Café are exorbitant (I was stuffed from my inbound flight, so I didn't partake) and I would not be surprised to discover that was true based on the $12 I spent for a coffee and croissant at the cart in the lobby. I can stay and eat/drink at really nice places in midtown Manhattan for less than this. Perhaps it's the novelty of the place, but unless the prices go down the place is essentially mostly cost-prohibitive.
The staff really don't care how cool this is, and the service resembles what you might expect from a Wendy's in the terminal. You'd think that with a concept as cool as this that they are selling at such high-end prices, they'd be able to get boundless applications from qualified, engaged people who also think it's pretty dope that they get to work here, or at the very least would seek out these people. Instead, it seems they went for the minimum-wage approach: the staff were generally (not always) early 20s, unenthusiastic, clueless, and less-than-professional. Examples: when I told the server on the Connie how cool the concept was, she just rolled her eyes and was like "yeah I hear that a lot." The bar is literally an enclosed tube 30ish feet long and I was one of five people there, and she visited me only once in the two hours I was there to take my second drink order. Another example, I was served breakfast in their "Market" area desks (which looked like a construction zone) by a Gen-Z girl wearing EARBUDS while I interacted with her at the register. The management has not focused on finding staff that match the premium that guests pay for this experience and don't seem to care enough to make sure that staff meet the standards of a hotel of this caliber.
There are some truly bizarre choices the management has made. The checkin area happens to be at the original checkin desks, which is awesome, but the staff was sorta loafing about this area, didn't greet me, and guests are expected to check in themselves on a stationary iPad, sort of like checking in for a flight at a kiosk these days. We even had to make our own keys, which could seem cool but was annoying instead. Moreover, they didn't even have the type of room I booked (a complaint I'd seen really frequently on review sites––I'm reminded of Seinfeld) and the whole kiosk experience required the help of a lackadaisical staff member anyway. I think the weirdest thing, though, is they don't have trash cans in the room, instead opting for little mats on the desk with places to put your garbage on one side of the mat and recyclables on the other. Given the garbage that often comes out of hotel rooms, I would hate to see what checkout looks like for some of these desk mats.
The place is kinda a general laughably bad shitshow. Examples: this hotel is brand spanking new and in many places the carpet already looks like shit, mostly because there are paint splatters all over it from putting the new paint on the walls. There is an elevator bank with three elevators in the wing containing the rooftop terrace/pool, and yet only two of these elevators go to the roof, and there is no separate call button for these elevators. This means that someone going to the roof would have a two in three shot at getting an elevator that actually gets them to their destination. It's nearly impossible to find your way to the hotel, and just as difficult to navigate the lobby. Even little details are baffling and just funny––the elevator screen might say "down" while the lit-up arrows next to it indicate "up." Something in the room made huge banging sounds randomly throughout the night that I couldn't pinpoint. Perhaps most embarrassing, I spent about 20 minutes walking around naked in the room after my shower in full view of the arrivals level of Terminal 5 before realizing they'd done nothing to tint/obscure the windows in the that are Panopticon-like structure right in the middle of JFK.
This place is cool. I'd still hit up the Connie for a martini, but unless the overnight prices come down significantly, I'm not sure I'd stay again. I'll be interested to see how the place evens out, and perhaps when I become a rich gay, I will take another look.
If you're at JFK, definitely give this place a shot for a drink at the Connie or a few beers on the roof. Or, if you need a place to crash between flights, but not overnight, they offer blocks of daytime hours. In any event, just being able to wander around the gorgeous historical building is worth the visit, and free!