First Impressions of the TWA Hotel at JFK — Spectacular, But Needs Work

May 19, 2019

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The TWA Hotel opened Wednesday at New York’s JFK airport to much fanfare and delight. Hoards of press, guests and former Trans World Airlines employees crowded the lobby of the famed TWA Flight Center to celebrate and enjoy a rejuvenated marvel of architecture and ode to aviation history.

While the opening produced much excitement, there were quite a few hiccups regarding the actual operations of the hotel, which makes sense given it was a soft opening. That being said, the property felt like a fantastic place to step back in time and geek out over the Golden Age of Travel.

The Good

This really may be one of the world’s best airport hotels. That’s because the lobby is housed in the famous TWA Flight Center, designed by legendary architect Eero Saarinen, whose works include Washington Dulles International Airport and the St. Louis Gateway Arch.

The Flight Center has been completely revitalized to make it look like it did in 1962. Stunning bright red carpet starkly contrasts the white penny tile that covers much of the lobby’s surface. The swooping architecture of the building is so thoughtfully designed that there actually isn’t a single right angle in the building.

According to MCR Development, who spearheaded the project, the TWA Hotel has the largest lobby in the world measuring in at 200,000 square feet. Hotel check-in desks are stationed right where the original airline desks were, and the baggage drop is still operational!

(Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)

No LCD screens appear here — Solari split-flat boards click and clack, updating on the minute with new airlines, destinations and gate numbers. Unfortunately its not real flight information, but it helps add to the vintage ambiance.

The sunken lounge is one of the lobby’s centerpieces with views of JFK’s Terminal 5 and the 1958 TWA Lockheed constellation. It’s a great place to enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning or relax with a cocktail served by one of the hotel staff.

What I truly loved about the hotel is the incredible attention to detail. Everything is TWA branded or made to look like its from the era when the airline was at its height (and I mean everything). From the coasters in the rooms etched with TWA aircraft to rotary phones (yes, they actually work) to vintage Life magazines.

Crew uniforms are prominently displayed revealing the evolution of design and reflecting the culture of the country throughout the years. There are other nooks and crannies throughout the hotel where TWA and 1960s memorabilia are displayed, be it an early model TWA Boeing 747 or a circa 1962 TIME magazine celebrating the early days of space travel.

Classic TWA advertisements deck the walls of the hall that leads out to one of the stars of the show: a fully restored 1958 Lockheed Constellation.

The aircraft actually flew for TWA for two years and then had a wild history before it ended up where it is now, back in its original livery. Guests can enjoy a cocktail inside the aircraft that even sports retro airplane seats — unfortunately the interior bar wasn’t fully functional on opening day, but guests were served complimentary champagne.

However, we did enjoy a few negronis at the Lisbon Lounge, where we had great service. We were forced to stay there though, as our reservation for the adjacent Paris Cafe, run by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, was dubiously cancelled on opening morning because of “overbooking.” Fellow guests said the food was good, but I took a peek at the menu and it gives post-security airport restaurants a run for their money: £14 for fried calamari and £20 for a cheeseburger.

(Image courtesy of The TWA Hotel)
(Image courtesy of The TWA Hotel)

Not only is this a place for lovers of TWA and aviation history, but those who appreciate a modern jet will be more than satisfied with a visit to roof top pool and grill that has a panoramic view of JFK’s Runway 4 Left / 22 Right. TPG’s Managing Editor Alberto Riva dove deep into how the hotel is potential mecca for aviation geeks.

Two towers were built between the TWA Flight Center and JFK’s Terminal 5, which host 512 guest rooms — making it the only hotel that’s truly onsite at JFK. The top floors of the Hughes Wing (named after TWA CEO Howard Hughes) have some incredible views of the runway, too — just make sure you request one upon booking. Tyler Morse, CEO of MCR Development, told us that while the property isn’t currently charging extra for these views, it does have plans to do so in the future.

The rooms themselves weren’t huge, but as far as New York hotels go, they get the job done. Mid-Century modern decor and design is prevalent throughout the space and terrazzo tile lines parts the bathroom. A classy wet bar sits in the room’s foyer, right next to a bathrobe emblazoned with the TWA logo.

I slept great during my one-night stay. The plush king bed was aided by the 4.5-inch-thick glass curtain wall that kept the room so quiet I forgot I was just a stone’s throw away from Airbus’s A380 engines.

Rooms themselves start at £196 a night but can also be booked in four-hour blocks for £118, perfect for the business traveler coming off a red-eye or someone with an extended layover at JFK.

For more details on the room, hotel and all its AvGeekery, check out our video tour hosted by TPG Community Manager and red-blooded AvGeek Wallace Cotton (and with a cameo from yours truly).

Growing Pains

Unfortunately, the actual guest experience was far from perfect. But I should preface again, this was a soft opening, so not everything was operating at 100%. When I checked in, I was told the runway room I booked wasn’t ready because it wasn’t yet furnished. They’d have to move me to a lower floor, where I’d just be able to view the belly of the aircraft. The check-in agent could see my disappointment and offered to take half off my bill without me even asking.

Once I was in my room, I had no issues and enjoyed a pleasant evening and sleep. However, my colleague, TPG Managing Editor Alberto Riva, was unable to turn off the lights placed behind the bed — and hotel staff had no idea how to fix it either. He had to jury-rig a barrier with pillows over the lights to darken the room. We heard of similar issues and electrical problems from other hotel guests.

Throughout the hotel, parts of the building were very much under construction — there were exposed wires in some areas. Some of the elevators weren’t operational and when we headed up to the rooftop pool, we were confined to a small corner of the space, as they were still finishing up the area.

TWA Hotel representatives could not comment on the timeframe on when the hotel would be completely operational. They did say that the Departures Food Hall will be running at full steam come Monday, and the Paris Cafe started serving breakfast Friday.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been covering this since construction started in 2016. I can tell you the sheer complexity of this project is truly astounding: MCR has had to work with dozens of government agencies, historical societies and more to pull off this feat. And for all the service hiccups, and the handful of unfinished areas of the hotel, it’s still incredible to see the TWA Flight Center revitalized as true testament to the Jet Age. I imagine most of the unfavorable characteristics should be gone within the next few weeks.

Once the hotel is fully complete, it’s absolutely worth staying at and will surely be a place for AvGeeks (and potential ones), architecture nuts and even everyday travelers to explore and soak in all its historical ambiance.

All images by the author except where noted. 

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