Crain’s New York Business: OPINION: LaGuardia AirTrain is crucial to city’s tourism recovery

By Vijay Dandapani

October 6, 2020


Less than 12 months ago, we celebrated another record year for tourism in New York City, with more than 65 million visitors fueling an industry that had grown during the past decade to become the city’s fourth largest economic sector.

We never envisioned that the hospitality industry, built around tourism and business travel, would soon be laid waste by the economic calamity caused by Covid-19. Hotel occupancy in the city is less than 10% when adjusted for nongovernmental business and hotel closures, instead of nearly 90% last year. More than 30,000 hotel employees are out of work. Over 200 hotels have closed, many permanently. Further, the list of restaurants that will never reopen is growing by the day.

As bleak as the picture might be, and as difficult as the road we face is, we know that we can and that we will rebuild. As president of the association representing 300 hotels in New York City, I can tell you that our members are committed to the city and our industry. But restoring our economy and returning New York to its status as the top destination in America will take both private and public investment.

That’s why we strongly support the LaGuardia AirTrain, a transportation project proposed by the Port Authority that we believed was necessary to maintain our economic vitality before the pandemic and that has only become even more critical to our economic revival today.

The AirTrain would create an immediate economic stimulus for our region by putting more than 3,000 construction workers back on the job, earning good salaries that provide families a path to the middle class. Until Covid-19, that was a path shared by tens of thousands of hotel workers in the city, who found an entry to the middle class through good-paying jobs in our industry.

Most importantly for the tourism and travel industries, AirTrain can lay the foundation for economic growth into the future by addressing an issue that’s long been a problem: the lack of reliable, fast access to LaGuardia Airport.

Well before the pandemic, we saw a growing reluctance among business travelers to come to New York. A survey conducted by the Partnership for New York City showed that more than half of all business travelers made a conscious decision to avoid flying to New York for a meeting in the preceding 12 months.

Much of that reluctance came down to the difficulties of getting to and from LaGuardia, our city’s main gateway for business travel. LaGuardia is the only major airport on the East Coast without a rail link to the city center. Without a rail link, 93 percent of travel to LaGuardia is by private cars or private shuttles.

Today we face a growing threat to attracting business travelers: virtual meetings, which have become a staple of the pandemic. Reluctant to waste time in traffic going to and from our airport, executives have more options to conduct their business remotely despite the many attractions of travel to New York.

The AirTrain responds to that challenge by providing reliable and fast transportation to the airport. A trip between Midtown and the airport would take less than 30 minutes by AirTrain combined with an easy connection to increased LIRR service at a new Willets Point Station, or to the subway’s 7 train.

Travelers riding the AirTrain could enjoy dramatic views of the city’s iconic skyline while using a mass transit rail link that removes more than 1 million cars each year from highways and local roads, in turn reducing vehicle emissions.

Based on surveys of passengers at LaGuardia, the Port Authority estimates that 10 million travelers annually would use the AirTrain, which through its links to the LIRR and the 7 train, could bring travelers directly to Grand Central Terminal, Penn Station, Times Square and the Javits Convention Center.

Coupled with the $8 billion transformation of LaGuardia from one of the nation’s most poorly rated airports into what is becoming the nation’s best new airport, the AirTrain would dramatically enhance the appeal of travel to New York just as we are working to rebuild our economy.

The AirTrain, now going through its final stage of the Federal Aviation Authority’s environmental review, is our only realistic chance of creating fast, reliable mass transit to the airport with the least impact on surrounding communities. We call on all New Yorkers to support it.

In the hospitality industry, we know that you don’t get a second chance to make a great first impression. The AirTrain and a new LaGuardia can give New York that well-deserved great first impression even before travelers reach their hotel.

Vijay Dandapani is president and CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City.