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The Worst Airport Terminal in America?

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I would like to say that I wasn’t surprised when I entered JFK’s Terminal 1. I’ve been traveling long enough that crappy surroundings have no impact — even when they’re located in one of the richer cities of the world.

I walked through security and began walking by the gates. The terminal was cramped, the lights were dim, restaurants and shops were awkwardly thrown up in the middle of the corridor. Though I was there in the early morning the floor was noticeably dirty, the gunk that was smeared over it seemed to have been there so long as to be a permanent part of the interior design. The place was remarkably busted. Literally. The benches were torn up and many of the seats in the haphazardly arranged dining area were actually broken — their backs broke off long ago. The place seemed more like a Greyhound bus station than a major airport for one of the world’s preeminent cities.

I sat down in a broken chair and looked around. I’m a vagabond, of course I don’t care about such menial things as how an airport looks, but the extreme of just how defunct the place was was impossible to ignore. It was almost interesting.

Though I didn’t get pissed off until I picked up a sandwich in the snack shop and saw the $12 price tag. Seriously, $12 for a ham sandwich. My kid was hungry so I compromised with her and paid $5 so she could eat a 75 cent mini-carton of Cheerios. I walked around a corner looking for something cheaper, I found another shop selling sandwiches. $14 each. Pure extortion. They think they have us trapped back here behind the walls of the TSA . . .

I walked back out through security and found a snack somewhere else.

I would like to describe JFK’s Terminal 1 as third world, but can’t. Most airports in third world countries are far better. Most developing countries actually try to make themselves look better with their airports, so they make them as impressively as they can. Whereas it’s clear that New York just doesn’t give a shit.

Perhaps the only worst major airport terminal I’d been through in the world was in Tegucigalpa — I remember that black garbage bags were taped together and used as a substitute for a wall — but everything in Tegucigalpa is pretty much like this, so it had an excuse.

The airport is the first and last thing many people will see in a country. Your first interaction with a place is often in the airport, and your final memories will often be made there. I can remember almost every airport I’ve ever been through. Oddly, the feeling I have of them is somewhat similar to the feeling I have of the country as a whole. There is perhaps no other institution that speaks of a place’s character more than its airport. JFK’s Terminal 1 is perhaps no different.

New York is a city where multi-millionaires ride the subway. It’s a place where top executives get bagels at the same places bums hang out. There is probably no place on earth where the rich and the poor exist in such close proximity. NYC is rough, it’s battered, and this doesn’t seem to phase the people who live there at all. If NYC was a pool of vomit New Yorkers would call it the greatest pool of vomit on earth. These people have nothing to prove. So where’s the impetus for fixing up a crumbling airport terminal? It still works.

At least the place didn’t seem to leak water down into plastic buckets placed all over the floor like in Laguardia.

*I found out later that it was JFK’s Terminal 3 that was in fact named the worst terminal in the world, so I guess it can get worse.

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Filed under: Air Travel, Airports, New York City, USA

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 79 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3075 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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