Review of the new TWA Hotel at JFK: Almost awesome
I had looked forward for weeks to a pre-departure stay at the retro-themed new TWA Hotel at JFK Airport in the former TWA Flight Center. When I had discovered it was going to open just a few days prior to my flight out, I booked a room. And I felt like a little kid before Christmas, thinking about hanging out at the highly touted infinity pool on the rooftop terrace, watching planes land from my runway room, and luxuriating in the glamorous retro 1960s architecture and décor. I was looking forward to awesomeness.
Then I arrived. And it was like being that same little kid who woke up on Christmas morning only to find out Santa had skipped her house: The pool and terrace at the retro-themed TWA Hotel at JFK were still under construction and off-limits, the yoga room was a construction office, wires hung from sockets in the ceiling, and restaurants operating with temporary bare bones menus were either booked solid or not open in the evening. And it took the staff three room check-ins to get me to a clean and correct room.
I really wanted awesomeness. What I got was a night in room 666. No, really. 666.
Massive renovation at the retro-themed TWA Hotel at JFK
To be fair, this TWA Hotel at JFK airport has been a massive undertaking that has already taken 2 1/2 years just for construction, never mind planning, permits and design. The team had to renovate the former TWA terminal (shuttered since 2001 and on the National Register of Historic Places since 2005) while maintaining all the total glam ‘60s curves and atmosphere by renowned architect Eero Saarinen, not to mention adding two hotel wings with 512 rooms that didn’t distract from Saarinen’s iconic swooping architecture.
However massive the project, the new TWA Hotel at JFK was nevertheless online and selling rooms bookable as of May 15 – and, yes, I paid regular price, no special rates, period. It was not called a “soft opening,” which could have softened the blows of incompletion (although media at the May 15 grand opening apparently were told it was “soft,” which is PR speak for “we’re not ready yet”). Guests were never told that restaurants would not be ready, that the much-publicized food hall would be as good as inoperable (go to the airport to find food? Are you kidding me?), and that the rooftop infinity pool with runway view would be closed while still under construction. Online you found nothing but gorgeous staged photos that left you salivating to experience the retro-themed TWA Hotel at JFK – never mentioning that what you saw was PR glitz, and it was actually not going to be showtime for real, paying guests.
Tourists saw awesome, guests struggled
During my one-night stay, I saw numerous “tourists” – folks who were wandering through with cameras, likely on a jaunt during a layover at JFK, on their way to or from a flight, or on a curiosity trek from the nearby area. Everybody had cameras – and rightly so. The curves, sweeps, colors, lines, geometry and dancers dressed up in retro TWA uniforms are truly breathtaking. And the historical touches – researched and created in conjunction with the New York Historical Society – offer a fascinating peek back in time when flying was in fact still glamorous.
But what about guests? I arrived from Manhattan on the AirTrain public transit system, getting off at Terminal 5, as the website for the new TWA Hotel at JFK airport instructed, then came to a screeching halt. Now what? I could see the TWA Hotel through the windows, but how did I get there? A temporary A-frame floor sign pointed me toward elevators, but those dropped me into a parking garage with sidewalks to nowhere. I ended up dragging my suitcase across access roads and curbs to access the new TWA Hotel at JFK. Seems they expect most people will drive. (Note: The way to get there is to turn left from the Air Train and go into Jet Blue’s Terminal 5, then do a big circle to the elevators and into the hotel through the iconic passenger access tubes made famous in the 2002 movie “Catch me if you can.”)
Then came the check-in process: I had selected a runway view room. High-tech check-in screens didn’t work right yet so we repeated the process a couple of times until clerks gave up and did it manually. I was handed a key and started the long haul up the stairs and down one of the spectacular tubes. Two wings of rooms (Hughes and Saarinen) are accessed half-way out the tubes. The first room I was given was still mussed from the prior guests, so back down I went.
The second room I was given was not the runway view room I had paid for. Back down I went.
I was handed the key envelope for a third room and glanced at the number – room 666. I looked back at the clerk and said, “Really??” That room, albeit with a number that left me wondering what was in store, was ready. It was a larger runway-view double queen (since they didn’t seem to be able to find any of the runway view kings I had booked). Gorgeous, for sure. The martini bar (in every room) was glam (you have to go online to see the ouch prices, however, which is nothing short of inconvenient). A jar of complimentary red TWA pencils sits on the desk. High-speed Wi-Fi gets you surfing quickly (Note the $10 facilities fee for the “free” Wi-Fi and “free” gym access, as well as for amenities that at the time of this visit didn’t exist yet like a reading room or the pool).
The new TWA Hotel will be awesome — in a few months
Awesome was not what I got – although the retro-themed hotel at JFK airport will be nothing short of amazing. Just give it another few months. Certainly not a construction expert, I would guess that really wrapping up everything is going to take at least two months if not three or four. Well-trained staff tried very hard to put on happy faces, but many were still quick to point out as an aside how frustrated they were too by all the kinks and glitches.
The gripe is not with kinks. Delays and fixes are de rigueur in construction projects, especially one of this scale. The problem was that the company set a broadly publicized opening day with pomp, circumstance, flash, dancers, and all the falderal expected. Backing out just wasn’t possible so Band-Aids became mandatory. Which is fine if you are just passing through oo’ing and ah’ing at the structure, perhaps looking for something to do on a layover at JFK. It’s not OK if you paid money for a hotel room, amenities, and workable spaces, not to mention the ability to find food and beverages. (I noted the hotel managed to clear the rooftop terrace for the media tours on opening day, likely not revealing it was going to be shut tight again afterward.)
In my room, for example, the master light switch by the front door turned off ALL lights and plugs, including the bedside light AND the bedside plug, so you could not leave a device plugged in bedside OR snuggle into bed to read by the light of a bedside lamp. Odd. Also odd was the lack of a closet and just a few pegs with a few hangers. And one robe for a double queen room? Do you have to share? But two hair dryers? Where a doorknob on the inside of the bathroom door should have been was instead a barren wood hole. And the sounds of construction such as drilling were audible in my room until past 9 p.m. and started up again at 7:30 in the morning. Hello, there are paying guests working and sleeping here.
Worried about airport and runway noise, however? Don’t. Windows are the second-thickest in the world at 4 ½ inches. And all you hear is a faint whoosh now and then. Windows also have electric room-darkening shades that turn your room into a cozy cocoon.
A few tips from my stay at the TWA Hotel at JFK:
- On the mezzanine level, above the check-in area, you find the Pope’s Room, adjoining seating areas and Ambassador’s Club. Intimate seating away from all the hubbub. Not to mention amazing sunset light filtering in the huge windows. The museum of uniforms over the years is also there, at least for now. (At the time of my stay, there were holes in the ceiling and exposed wires in the Pope’s Room.)
- At the top end of the Saarinen wing access tube is a reproduction of Howard Hughes’ office. You can even sit at the desk and type a few strokes at the keyboard.
- At the top end of both tubes (i.e. the ends away from the hotel) are museum-like wall panels explaining history of the structure, people and design. Not to be missed.
- Get yourself outside to visit “Connie,” the old Lockheed Constellation L-1649A. Now, it’s a retro bar and pretty stylin’. Sure, have a glass of bubbly. Why not? It’s small, so be sure to book a table once this place gets rockin’… which it will … down the road.
- The Fitness Center is utterly amazing for a hotel – 10,000 square feet with anything you could possibly want. Anybody on a layover at JFK could easily work out a few kinks – at this time, however, make sure you have your own gear. Guest fees apply if you are not a hotel guest.
Also possible are short-term stays for resting up after or between long flights. Check the website for details and pricing.
All rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows. Pro: They let in great light and have nice views, either of the runway or the old retro-themed TWA Flight Center. Con: Unless you are an exhibitionist that means people on the ground, in the hotel lobby or restaurant areas of the new TWA Hotel, or even in Terminal 5 (yes, really) could get quite a show.
Runway view rooms are the way to go. Much more desirable than the view of the Flight Center building. Do it.
Warning for your stay at the new TWA Hotel at JFK airport: Management has managed to sprinkle the room with all kinds of goodies like collectible Life magazines, a repro TWA amenity kit, and bedside bottles of Smartwater. But be careful: These things are for sale although not really clearly marked as such.
What sounds amazing at the new TWA hotel, but I can’t speak to:
- The “Departures” food hall with New York hallmark restaurateurs such as The Halal Guys, Empanada Republic and Playa Bowls. Website doesn’t indicate that it’s closed still as of this visit. No food, no how.
- The highly touted Paris Café by two-Michelin-star chef Jean-Georges. It looks beautiful but had limited hours with a skimpy menu of burgers and pizzas. Forget about the glamorous French-inspired fare he is famous for.
- The pool, rooftop terrace and runway views. Sigh. Couldn’t even get a look. The website now says “opening soon,” but it didn’t before.
If you want to stay at the retro-themed TWA Hotel , do call and ask very pointed questions about what’s open and available. With so much potential, I am looking forward myself to getting back to the hotel when it’s really done to experience what it can be — not what it almost is. I look forward to awesomeness.
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