Opinion: Hotel plans for Kennedy need to take off

FILE: Airplanes on the runway of Kennedy Airport, as a boater passes by on the waters of Head Of Bay in Queens, on Aug. 13, 2012.
FILE: Airplanes on the runway of Kennedy Airport, as a boater passes by on the waters of Head Of Bay in Queens, on Aug. 13, 2012. Photo Credit: Bart Barlow

The Port Authority recently issued a request for proposals to redevelop the TWA Flight Center at Kennedy Airport into a first-class airport hotel. The development would be a big step forward for the airport, for the region and for travelers.

The terminal has been empty since 2001; its iconic winged structure is a symbol both of a bygone era and of underinvestment in our region’s airports. Bureaucratic and business hurdles have kept JFK without on-site accommodations. Now there is a chance to build something lasting.

Since 2008, the authority has tried to develop the building along with JetBlue Airways’ successful Terminal 5. But after $20 million in rehabilitation and years of failed negotiations with potential hoteliers, the terminal remains empty.

That’s a shame. Neither Kennedy nor LaGuardia airports is home to an on-site hotel. Cities around the world use airports as hubs for transportation, commerce, meetings and events, but NYC’s “front doors” function as little more than dreaded stopovers. In fact, airports in U.S. cities like Chicago, Dallas and Miami, and smaller regional hubs such as Bradley International Airport in Hartford, have airport terminal hotels.

On-airport hotels are a boon to the local economy. Global Gateway Alliance issued a report demonstrating hotels on airport grounds have higher occupancy than off-airport competitors, and that they can generate as much as a 12-to-1 economic return to the region.

According to Smith Travel Research group, a provider of hotel data, average occupancy rates at on-airport hotels was 71.4 percent in the first four months of 2014, up from 62.4 percent in 2010. That is 17 percent higher than the overall U.S. average hotel occupancy rate of 60.8 percent.

An airport hotel at the TWA terminal (leased from the Port Authority) makes sense. Not only is the property in the busiest gateway airport in the country, serving more than 50 million passengers annually, but it is situated along the AirTrain monorail, giving guests access to other terminals, and via mass transit, all of NYC.

It’s time not only for this project to take flight, but for our marquee airport to have a hotel that makes Kennedy better for passengers, visitors and the city as a whole.

Joseph Sitt is chairman and founder of Global Gateway Alliance, an advocacy group. Jennifer Hensley is executive director of the nonprofit Association for a Better New York.