TWA Hotel, review

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Rear view of “Connie” bar

Does the first 500-room hotel on the JFK property require a fight, flight, or fright response from travelers who’ll do anything to get through security and onto their planes as fast as possible?

One of the many sacrifices of the golden age of flight was the democratization of air travel. In a world where pretty much everyone can travel anywhere, anytime they want, there is less and less incentive to celebrate the anticipation of the journey itself. Thanks also to automated check-in apps, strict loading and unloading zones at terminal entrances and the labyrinth of joyless security checkpoints, most modern airports have shaved the land-side facilities down to skycaps, check-in desks and a partridge in the pear tree. Which begs the question: can a nostalgic hotel, dripping in red retro, reconstitute that glamorous, old-world anticipation – despite our short attention span and even shorter disposable time?

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Solari signs

The whole point of an airport nowadays is to shrink an unpopular experience down to the absolute minimum. Therefore, the notion of a longer linger prior to security makes for an unlikely bet that non-travelers might be lured to an airport when they have better options. Or those who actually have a destination might want to front-load even more pre-departure time before finding their terminal, removing their shoes, fluids and laptops and hiking to their gates.

Let me put it another way: who wants to hang around the dentist’s office for any longer than absolutely necessary? Even if it’s in an architecturally relevant building? Even if they have a great view from the oral hygenist’s chair? Even if they have great reading material in the waiting room? The only people who loiter at airport terminals nowadays are janitors, security, and check-in agents. For everyone else it’s a high-stress, irritant necessity, about as much fun as root canal. And the sooner it’s over the better!

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Eero Saarinen structure

So, along comes visionary developer Tyler Morse with a brave and expensive plan to turn a neglected building on the endangered list into a time machine – convinced it will take us back sixty years with a new lease on life as a hotel. Like mold, hotels have parasitically mushroomed out of just about every conceivable host structure never intended for hospitality. These include train stations, office towers, churches, hospitals, prisons, caves and even giant blocks of ice. So, an airport terminal isn’t entirely out of the question, but that’s hardly the point. One of the biggest benefits of Morse’s endeavor provides a posthumous defibrillation of the TWA brand, along with Eero Saarinen’s curvaceous, pre-jet-age terminal, inspired by a bird taking flight – easily the quintessential architectural marvel of the sixties.

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Connector “tubes”

Long before architects like Zaha Hadid or Frank Gehry, Saarinen (hot off his St. Louis arch acclaim) forced plaster and steel to go where none had gone before, to create the largest column-less dome structure the world had ever seen. Restoring and converting the former Flight Center into the hotel lobby was obvious, but then Morse had to build 2 crescent shaped wings with 512 rooms that connect via the original suspended “tubes”.

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Valet parking attendants

Half of the one-way glass rooms have airside views with nonstop airliner action on two runways. The other half stare back at the Saarinen structure, where the TWA baggage-handler overall-clad valet-parkers provide most of the action, in exchange for what will no doubt become an after-dark exhibitionists paradise.

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Hughes Wing rooms

The rooms are nice and bright – but tight, with a handful of curious design choices. Being able to plane spot from a comfy king-sized pillow-top with runway views, just before the point of rotation, is pretty hard to beat, even if a traveler with multiple suitcases might have to decide between standing next to – or on – the bed. The in-room martini bar is a fun idea, but you can’t really make a martini without vermouth. Or olives. Or ice. Or a shaker. I would have happily traded mine in for the oddly absent Nespresso machine as promised on the hotel’s website. Instead of a garbage can, there’s a laminated table-top mat, with one half dedicated to recycling and the other for waste, thereby exposing your junk for the world to see and judge.

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Cupboard “hooks” and Martini bar

Instead of a cupboard, (are they worried I might overstay my welcome?) you can try your luck at the single drawer, deep enough to accommodate two X-rays, or one of the six brass hooks mounted far too close together to suspend more than one item at a time. The electric blackout shades are stellar, but the controls are hidden behind a soffit on the farthest edge of the room. The sugar-cube sized nightstand is just large enough to hold a mobile phone, but there are no USB charging ports in sight. And while the impressive 4-inch thick, floor-to-ceiling glass window wall successfully shields every GE, Pratt & Whitney or Rolls Royce turbine winding up or down, the walls are thin enough to grant me a point of view on an impending custody battle going on in the room next door.

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Main lobby

Speaking of sounds, the (charming at first) nonstop clickety-clickety-clack of the hand-made Solari informational signs in the terminal lobby eventually penetrates the brain like an unrelenting jackhammer. Even if the chili-pepper-red soft furnishing details contrast exquisitely with the ocean of dime-sized, white mosaic.

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Sunken Lounge

Despite all the hoopa-doopla regarding the restaurants, the Lisbon Lounge and adjoining Paris Café both boldly brandish Jean-George Vongerichten’s name as if he’s also about to join the Democratic Presidential race, but on closer inspection, the typical airport junk-food-adjacent menu is cooked by airport operator Tastes on the Fly. And while the mezzanine dining spaces are airy and mod, they enjoy a most unappetizing view of the Terminal 5 parking structure. Make no mistake, even for Queens, this will never become destination dining. The other “restaurants” are 5 shoulder-to-shoulder food truck vendors along a frigid check-in counter wing, that feel about as out of place as a live alligator wandering around Buckingham Palace.

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Gym

The massive gym is without doubt the largest of its kind in any hotel I’ve ever visited. In addition to multiple racks of free-weights and barbells, I lost count at 35 different weight training devices, 15 treadmills, 15 elliptical and stair machines and a 20-bike peloton classroom. The formal changerooms boast terrazzo floors with white marble and ebony details, and a litany of showers and lockers.

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Conference Center

Equally attractive is the subterranean (and hence windowless) conference center and ballroom with museum alcoves displaying dioramas of TWA’s 50’s and 60’s in-flight service. The mosaic, stone and steel finishes are remarkable, but I strongly suspect that every portion of charity chicken, tradeshow turkey or bar mitzvah bread-rolls will have to be trucked in.

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Self-service check-in

Despite high expectations, the May 15th opening turned out to be more bland than grand. It was astonishing to see such a tremendous mountain of PR melt at the woeful unreadiness of the staff and the facility itself. After completing the self-service digital check-in process, where you magnetize your own room key, I asked one of the cheerful front-desk attendants to point me in the direction of my room.

“Your…room…” she mused thoughtfully. “Hmmm. Let me just ask someone else.”

And so began a slow-motion relay race in delightful ineptitude. Even though there were a number of retro pay-phones throughout the terminal and a vintage rotary phone in each room, none were actually working. (And to make matters worse, there is no actual phone number listed for the hotel at all.) Adding to the list of “no’s”: no room service, no breakfast, no wake-up calls, no working bed-side lamp, no toilet roll holder, no shampoo, and the few restaurants that were actually operational were all fully committed. The next best options were the Halal Guys, Empanada Republic and the Earl of Sandwich, with deliveries from Uber Eats, Seamless and Domino’s Pizza as fallbacks.

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Negative edge rooftop pool

The first item on my “must-see” list was the giddying idea of an apron-side rooftop infinity pool facing two runways. Passing an entire trade-union of helmeted workers still hanging room doors on the uppermost floor, the pool turned out to be everything but infinite. The first clue was the sub-infinity water level, and the cornucopia of electrical cords and tiling equipment still very much in frantic operation. Before I could even snap a quick photo, one of (bar franchisee) Rande Gerber’s lieutenants lowered the lid on what was left of my waning enthusiasm.

“Sir. Excuse me. You can’t be here without a reservation?”

“For the pool?” I asked, vexed and perplexed in equal measure.

“Yes. You have to make a reservation.”

“OK. How can I do that?”
He produced a personal business card, and offered it to me with a knowing wink. “Just call this number and I’ll take care of you.”

So, I rushed back down via one of the 3 hours-old elevators with that uniquely addictive new-elevator smell of resin and glue, and quickly dialed the number.

“Didn’t I just speak to you a few minutes ago?” he quipped.

“Yes.” I confirmed. “I’d like to make a reservation at the Pool Bar.”

“I’m sorry, we’re not giving out any reservations at this time.”

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“Connie” Constellation Bar

The way I see it, the only real opportunity to realize Morse’s aspirations of a super-deluxe 5-star hotel on the tarmac would be to up the VIP ante considerably. Provide city-to-hotel vintage limo or helicopter transfers. Enable the front desk to check bags through to any airline at any terminal. Provide white-glove TSA security facilities, concierge duty-free shopping and room-to-gate chauffeur service anywhere across the tarmac. Instead, Morse expects to be at 200% occupancy by double-renting rooms for daytime or nighttime stays to crews, the stranded or early-bird travelers.

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Rear lobby windows

It’s highly doubtful that foreign airlines will accommodate their crews at these rates. Nor can I see any domestic airline putting up their marooned passengers in spitting distance to JetBlue’s Terminal. That leaves the affluent traveler with time to kill, or those aviation geeks who can afford a runway view. Even the avalanche of architecture students who are likely to march through the domed terminal and its adjoining tubes will never part with $260+ just to spend the night. I therefore predict that this elaborate, but static, amusement park ride will find a similar fate to the other no-frills, discount-rated, airport-adjacent Inns, Gardens and Courtyards that have accommodated the bored and bleary-eyed cancellation crowd for decades.

https://www.twahotel.com/

 

 

 

American Flagship Dining – an aviation first

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American Airlines Flagship Lounge – JFK Airport

Is it just me who finds it rather bizarre that even though the Wright brothers pioneered flight on these very shores, or that the world’s first commercial airline began operations in this country, why then are US carriers so embarrassingly dominated and overshadowed by their international counterparts? Whether it’s the aircraft livery design, crew uniforms, cabin interiors and comfort, or service in the air and on the ground, United/Delta/American seem stuck in a decade-long taxiway before finally pulling up to match that ever-rising standard. There’s hardly a passenger who would disagree that the worst part of air travel starts and ends at the airport: You can miss at least one birthday standing in the bounty of lines. There’s nowhere to sit. None of the phone chargers work. Vintage dust abounds. There’s never anything to do when your flight is delayed. And who can tolerate those dysentery-inducing food-chain options?

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American Airlines Flagship Lounge – JFK airport

Well, there certainly is a better way to get through it all. For those flying first class on American Airlines transcontinental or international routes out of JFK, the airline unveiled their new Flagship Lounge today, which will elevate the nations’ largest carrier to share similar airspace with the popular British Airways Concorde Lounge at Heathrow, or Cathay Pacific’s The Wing at Hong Kong International.

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Semi-private pods – American Airlines Flagship Lounge

The Flagship Lounge is replete with the expected comforts and conveniences, like a separate check-in facility, charging stations never more than an elbow away, the latest in electronic barista stations, a self-service bar, a perpetually refreshed buffet with 5 hot and more than a dozen cold dishes, a quiet room, a fancy cocktail station and a wide variety of seating from loungers to diners to booths and even a row of adorable, semi-private beehive pods. But unlike some international lounges, you’re not going to find a private cabana, a shoe-shine, a haircut, a massage (or any other indulgent services of a personal nature).

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Showers – American Airlines Flagship Lounge

Despite the fact that the décor is almost entirely color and warmth deprived (would it have killed someone to shlepp in a palm or a vessel of succulents, or anything green other than that bottle of Chartreuse between the Campari and the Bourbon?), it certainly makes up for in space and light. The generous, but highly considered variety of textures and finishes from leather to mosaics, bright woods to shiny pressed metals are all offset by the pervasive plethora of durable fabrics (in what seem to be limitless shades of gray, fawn and brown), built to withstand the impending avalanche of traveler abuse. And while the 8 bookable showers are spotlessly modern, I challenge the design team to find somewhere to spread their belongings out, while washing away a virtual thrombosis after 13+ hours of mid-Atlantic turbulence.

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Flagship First Dining – JFK airport

But none of that should overshadow the real moment of truth in what is without doubt another aviation first: American Airlines has dared to install the first ever, fully functioning restaurant kitchen inside an airport terminal. In a nutshell, there is no better meal to be had in any of the 8 terminals surrounding JFK airport than Flagship First Dining. With (mostly) locally sourced ingredients and a menu that extolls the virtues of regional flavors with some international destination-inspired dishes, chef Scott Keats has created the first gourmet airline dining experience before you even leave the ground.
There has been endless dialogue about the state of our taste buds at 35,000 feet, prompting airline catering programs to introduce highly sophisticated flavor profiles that continue to push the envelope within the limitations of what can be re-heated in the galley of a 777. But let’s say your flight is delayed until the storm passes and you are stuck at the airport for another 3 hours. You snag one of the 10 single seat window-facing tables or a 4-person booth and sit down to real cotton linens and regular sized flatware as you peruse the menu of a dozen options – all complimentary, of course!

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Smoked Duck Breast – Flagship First Dining

It only takes one bite of the perfectly tender Smoked Duck Breast with a deep, rich, woodsy flavor, wonderfully accented by the fruity-jammy au jus and punctuated by the chef’s take on a colorful succotash to realize that this dish wasn’t cooked last month, flash-frozen and trucked in from Minneapolis. The roasted tomato coulis anchoring three Arancini is delectable, but the “rice balls” (as the waiter referred to them) could do with a sprinkle of seasoning.

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Arancini – Flagship First Dining

Chef Keats makes a passionate argument about environmental impacts and sustainable farming, but then the other shoe drops when the magnificent Loch Duarte Salmon gets flown in daily from Scotland! He presents it medium-rare with a splash of broth along a soft pudding he calls “cauliflower risotto”, which is nice and rich and indulgently cheese-laden, but probably requires more of a spoon than a fork to reach the mouth with any dignity.

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Lentil Cake – Flagship First Dining

While there is only one vegetarian entree, it’s a damn good one. I used the last remnants of what was one of four bread roll options (that were offered without name or description) to mop up the delicious ginger sauce surrounding the Lentil cake covered with sautéed mushrooms and baby corns.

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Flagship Burger – Flagship First Dining

And probably the most traditional of all entrees – the one that’s impossible to serve at altitude – will become the signature dish on all future Flagship First Dining menus in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas and London – the Flagship Burger. “I really wanted it to be…unctuous,” Keats proudly declares of his moist, 1.5” thick sirloin patty, cave aged cheddar melt and immaculately sweet-and-spicy maple bacon marmalade.

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Flagship First Dining – JFK airport

Despite the unavoidable first day service jitters with wait staff who have yet to find their hands, feet, eyes and ears: when to refill a glass (before it’s empty), when to serve the condiments (before the dish has been consumed), or when to remove the silverware (not moments before they are about to be needed), this first foray into gate-side dining is bound to catch on at supersonic speed. I also predict some edits to the menu based on popularity and demand. (Did I hear someone ask for a pasta…?)

http://www.aa.com

https://www.aa.com/i18n/travel-info/experience/dining/flagship-first-dining.jsp