Group aims to improve New York’s ‘horrific’ airports

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
The Lookout

NEW YORK—Flight delays have long been a fact of life at New York’s three main airports—along with massive security lines and crumbling facilities, many of which haven’t seen major updates since they were first built in the 1960s.

City, state and federal officials have been promising for decades to improve New York’s troubled airport system, but little has been done. Now, however, they're getting a major push from a prominent Manhattan developer, who has pledged to help fix what he describes as a “blight” on the city’s image.

Joseph Sitt, founder of Thor Equities in New York, has put up $1 million of his own money to launch the Global Gateway Alliance, an advocacy group that aims to push officials into improving New York’s airports.

Sitt, a frequent traveler who commutes worldwide developing real estate, retail and tourism projects, said he was inspired to act due to years of feeling “embarrassment” as he walked through John F. Kennedy International Airport after traveling to airports in cities like Paris and Dubai.

The difference between those airports and the ones in New York, Sitt told Yahoo News, is "horrific."

‘There, everything takes off and lands quickly because they have the best radar system. They have enough runway. There, you go through the security lines quickly and safely because they have enough people," he said. "The place looks physically beautiful… You’re impressed when you come in. You’re impressed when you leave."

According to Sitt, the Alliance will be a media and lobbying organization that will act as an advocate to encourage city, state and federal officials to make airport improvement a priority in the region.

The group has already lined up a who’s who of key civic leaders to serve with Sitt, who will be chairman of the group. Other notables who have joined are: former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman; New York Observer publisher Jared Kushner; Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City; and Mitchell Moss, a well-known urban planning professor at New York University.

The group, Sitt added, is in the process of hiring a prominent aviation expert to serve as its executive director. While he wouldn’t mention names, among those who have been mentioned publicly is Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who famously landed a US Airways jet on the Hudson River after it struck a flock of geese while taking off from New York's LaGuardia Airport.

Sitt’s group is hardly the first to try to improve New York’s airports—a fact he readily admits. Asked what makes his group different, he bluntly replied, “We’ll actually get it done.”

But that's easier said than done. The Alliance, which plans to focus its initial lobbying efforts on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and members of Congress, is launching just as New York City prepares to elect a mayor to succeed Michael Bloomberg, whose third term ends later this year. The election, a source close to the group acknowledges, could make it tricky to gain strong city backing for an airport overhaul, at least this year.

As for working with Bloomberg, some members of the group are apparently skeptical about the mayor's commitment to New York airports. An unnamed member of the group told Crain’s New York that Bloomberg wasn’t fazed by the poor conditions of the airports because the media mogul/mayor usually travels by private jet.

“We need a mayor who flies commercial,” the source told Crain’s.

When asked about Bloomberg’s commitment to working with the group, Sitt declined to comment, saying only that he hoped to move forward in a “positive” manner with City Hall. But, he added, the group will try to influence the mayor's potential successors—and might even endorse a candidate who would commit to a redo of the airport system.

He warned that without a major airport rehabilitation project New York might begin to lose business. He pointed to cities like Atlanta that saw major jumps in commerce and tourism after redesigning their airports to become passenger hubs.

“The first and last impression you leave on the customer is the most important,” Sitt told Yahoo News. “Right now, the first impression is horrible and the last impression is horrible, and it’s time to do something about it.”