Preparing for Takeoff: A Sneak Peek at Newark Airport’s New Terminal

A modern replacement for Terminal A is rising at Newark Liberty. The promise: smoother security, more amenities and less waiting on the tarmac.

Port Authority aviation director Huntley Lawrence shows off an artist’s rendering of Newark Liberty’s new Terminal One. The $2.7 billion terminal is due to open in two phases, starting in late 2021.
Photo by Fred R. Conrad

Outdated, congested and inconvenient—that’s what they say about Newark Liberty International Airport’s Terminal A.

And that’s not just travelers griping; that’s the view of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the airport.

The Port Authority’s solution: Replace the old terminal with Terminal One, a gleaming, 1-million-square-foot building now under construction just south of Terminal A. The price tag: $2.7 billion. Expected to open in two phases in late 2021 and late 2022, Terminal One is the Port Authority’s largest project ever in New Jersey.

“It will mean less stress for passengers as they get through the security checkpoints, and a whole host of options and amenities for them as they’re waiting for their flights,” says Huntley Lawrence, aviation director for the Port Authority.

Terminal One, along with plans for a Terminal Two to replace Terminal B, are part of a multibillion-dollar plan to modernize Newark and the region’s other airports. The investment, Port Authority officials say, is key to the area’s economic health.

“You have to be able to provide that transportation network for everybody who lives and works here,” says Catherine Cronin, program director for the Port Authority. “If you don’t, you will stagnate the overall economic growth of this area.”

What’s more, terminal design is significant because airports are the front door that offers visitors their first impression of a region—or, in the case of an international airport like Newark Liberty, an entire nation, says Hal Hayes, a New York architect and professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

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“Sometimes terminals are utilitarian structures,” says Hayes. “What we’re beginning to see in the Port Authority airport construction is a larger appreciation of this building as a civic monument that serves a greater function than just processing passengers.” (Hayes is not involved in the Newark Liberty project.)

Terminal One will offer more traffic lanes at the drop-off and pickup points; security and check-in near the entrances, before most of the restaurants and shops; and greater flexibility in airlines’ use of arrival and departure gates, so planes that have landed aren’t stuck on the tarmac waiting for a gate to open up. 

“I think Terminal One will change a lot of people’s impressions of the airport,” says Rick Ardis, owner of Ardis Travel in East Rutherford. Those impressions aren’t great; Newark Liberty came in dead last in a recent J.D. Power ranking of customer satisfaction at 19 major North American airports.

Photo by Fred R. Conrad

Newark’s three existing terminals were constructed in the early 1970s, at a time when far fewer people took to the skies.

Air travel on U.S. airlines more than tripled between 1978 and 2018, growing from 275 million to 889 million trips, according to the airline industry group Airlines for America and the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics. 

“American airports, unfortunately, are bursting at the seams,” says Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers in Vienna, Virginia. “With as many people flying as there are today, airports built for a much lower number are increasingly inadequate.”

Terminal One is designed to serve the 13.6 million passengers expected by 2027, up from the 11.3 million served in 2017 at Terminal A.

While Newark Liberty’s problems are shared by other older airports around the nation, the challenge is tougher here. The New York metropolitan area is an international economic powerhouse and one of the most densely populated areas in the nation, but its three major airports are squeezed into undersized properties, with no room to spread their wings.

Put Newark Liberty, John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia together, and they’d still cover less acreage than Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, while serving twice the number of passengers, according to Lawrence. 

“From a geographic standpoint, we’ve got very, very little real estate,” says Lawrence. “It behooves us to operate as efficiently as possible.” New technology at Terminal One will help reach that goal, for example, by allowing airlines to shift gates as needed.

The new Terminal One will have wide expanses of tall windows for natural light, and open sight lines to reduce confusion and stress.
Photo by Fred R. Conrad

Designed by the London-based architectural firm Grimshaw, the steel-and-glass Terminal One pays tribute to the design of the earlier three terminals, with a sweeping facade featuring wide expanses of tall windows. Inside, Grimshaw’s design aims for abundant natural light and open sight lines to “reduce the potential for confusion and stress,” says Nikolas Dando-Haenisch, project lead for Grimshaw.

Once departing passengers pass through security, they’ll come to an overlook point where they can survey the restaurant and retail outlets, as well as the paths to their gates, on the floor below. “We want to avoid the back-and-forth you have in some airports, where you’re rushing to the gate, and then you realize that everything you want to do is in the other direction,” says Dando-Haenisch.

The building will be environmentally friendly, with solar panels and low water use. It will be constructed to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver standards.

The new terminal will be shaped roughly like a large triangle facing west, with two wings stretching to the north and south, and a third wing pointing east, toward the New Jersey Turnpike and the towering gantry cranes of Port Newark. From above, the building will look something like a futuristic aircraft, although it might remind some of a prehistoric bird.

Inside, the terminal will have two main levels: departures on the top and arrivals below, with a mezzanine for airport offices in between. Baggage claim will be on the ground floor.

Terminal One is being built south of Terminal A, on a site once occupied by UPS and U.S. Postal Service buildings. Working on a new site makes for an easier construction experience than what the Port Authority and passengers face at LaGuardia, which is undergoing a massive, $8 billion rebuild while in constant use.

The Terminal One project follows a $120 million upgrade a few years ago to Terminal C, the base of United Airlines, the dominant carrier at Newark Liberty. That renovation included a major upgrade in food service. The Terminal One plan also calls for new and better dining options than at Terminal A. The concessions at the new terminal, which will be operated by Munich Airport International, a subsidiary of Munich International Airport, will aim to include dining options with a Garden State twist. No restaurants have been announced yet.

The Port Authority has yet to determine which airlines will use Terminal One. Terminal A is now home to Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American and JetBlue.

Terminal A’s current configuration, with gates clustered in a circle, makes it difficult for planes to maneuver. At the new terminal, gates will be arrayed along three long wings.
Photo by Fred R. Conrad

The need for the airport update has long been evident, the result of two major events that transformed air travel. In 1978, the federal government deregulated the airline industry, which drew millions of new passengers by making flights more affordable.

And the 9/11 terror attacks created a need for tight screening of passengers and luggage, forcing airports to wedge workers, X-ray machines, conveyor belts and other security apparatus into spaces where nothing like that was ever envisioned. 

On a recent day at the sprawling Terminal One construction site, workers were busy smoothing out concrete with big rotating machines, bolting steel into place, stepping across a web of metal rebar waiting for a concrete pour, and performing dozens of other jobs. The soundtrack to their work mingled banging tools and screeching metal with the safety beeps of construction vehicles. To the east, planes glided onto the runways and vehicles streamed north and south on the Turnpike. 

Back at Terminal A, a check-in with flyers suggested they were unlikely to miss the old building, which they found kind of “meh.”

Melissa Stewart, a social work professor who had flown into Newark from Richmond, Virginia, said Terminal A was easy to navigate, but “very old and kind of out of date.”  

Ashley Allen, 19, a student from New York City, said the terminal was less appealing than other, more modern airports she had visited.  

“It just seems—I don’t know if dull is the word,” she mused while waiting for her flight to college in Columbia, South Carolina.

Ardis, the East Rutherford travel agent, believes that overall, Newark Airport is not as bad as people say—“People like to dump on New Jersey”—but agrees that Terminal A is overdue for replacement. Traveling through Terminal A can mean snaking your way through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint squeezed into a narrow hallway, he points out. Once you’ve gotten to your gate, the food and beverage options are skimpy.

The old terminal, he concludes, “is the worst of the bunch.”

The new Terminal One will address some of these issues by having check-in and security close to the front doors on the departures level. Once travelers get through that area, they’ll descend to a concourse level with many restaurant and retail choices, as well as the gates. This follows a trend at airports toward locating amenities beyond security checkpoints, where they are more useful to flyers.

“People try to get to the airport very early because there might be a long line at security,” says Seth Kaplan, an aviation analyst and journalist. “Now you’re beyond security an hour before the flight. That’s where you want to eat, where you want a place for your kids to play.”

Port Authority program director Catherine Cronin says airport modernization is essential to the region’s economic growth.
Photo by Fred R. Conrad

Gates at terminal One will be shared among airlines, a potentially significant benefit. Currently, each airline controls designated gates and can’t use others. If, for example, a JetBlue flight is delayed at its gate, the JetBlue flight scheduled to arrive at that gate can’t get in.

At Terminal One, all the gates will be so-called common use, with computer systems available to any airline. That way, planes can be shifted to available gates, so passengers won’t be forced to wait at predetermined entry points. 

“Any of the airlines can connect to their software at any gate,” says Cronin. “You’re able to put whoever needs to be there where they need to be.”

Ardis applauds the change. “That will improve the experience of customers and relieve overcrowding,” he says.

Terminal One will have 33 gates and more space for larger aircraft, such as Boeing 777s, than Terminal A. The demolition of the old Terminal A satellites—long hallways leading to a cluster of gates in a circle—will create more space for planes to taxi. 

The new terminal is designed with the option to expand to 45 gates by extending its north wing to run alongside the old Terminal A headhouse, or main building.

Terminal One will be financed by user fees paid by airlines; ultimately, the cost will be passed to consumers. The Port Authority does not have an estimate of the price impact on each air ticket.

As part of the plan to upgrade the airport, the Port Authority in late October okayed $2 billion in funds to replace the 23-year-old AirTrain monorail, which connects the three terminals with parking and rental car lots, as well as the NJ Transit, PATH and Amtrak rail lines. The new monorail is scheduled to open in 2024. The Port Authority also is adding a six-level, 3,000-car parking garage and rental-car center nearby, as well as new access roads.  

The union representing 2,000 of the 10,000 workers at the airport, 32BJ Service Employees International Union, welcomes the new terminal. 

“It’s good for the airport and good for Newark and the tristate area,” says Kevin Brown, vice president of 32BJ, whose members include terminal and cabin cleaners, baggage handlers and wheelchair assistants. He’s concerned, however, that there might not be jobs at Terminal One for all the union workers now at Terminal A.

While it’s not clear how many union jobs will be retained at the new terminal, Lawrence says there will be more jobs overall, thanks to an increased number of stores and restaurants. The Port Authority recently approved a bump in the airport workers’ minimum wage to $15.60 an hour—the highest in the nation. The minimum will rise to $19 an hour in 2023. The union had fought for several years for that increase, which covers all workers at the airport, whether they belong to the union or not, and whether they’re employed by the airlines, the concessions or the Port Authority. 

Beyond the Terminal One project, the Port Authority has authorized spending $29 million to plan for Terminal Two, to replace the current Terminal B, which serves international flights. Terminal Two would be located west of the current Terminal B, on land now used for Terminal B parking. No timeline has been set for Terminal Two.

“We’re very, very focused on the next step for improving the experience at Newark airport,” says Lawrence. “World-class airports have world-class international terminals.” 

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