The devastating attack at the Istanbul airport came a day after I had flown into New York’s LaGuardia (LGA) Airport, returning from my high school reunion at South Padre Island, Texas. The confluence led to some very sobering thoughts about the vulnerability of at least LGA to a terrorist attack. For all the talk about beefed-up security, what I saw through the daze of 10 hours of travel alarmed me as I stumbled around LGA after midnight.
A series of unfortunate events placed me at the airport far later than I had planned. My plane from Dallas was supposed to arrive at 10:20 pm on Sunday night, Instead, it left Dallas an hour late and I arrived at LGA at almost 11:30 pm. Then I had to wait 20 minutes for my carry-on suitcase to arrive in the baggage pickup, after I had had to check the carry-on because of a lack of overhead-bin space in the back of the plane — I was in the dreaded “group four.”
LGA was already shutting down. My plane must have been one of the last to arrive for the night as retail stores and the TSA area were closed. I had planned to grab my bag and dash to the M60 bus that would take me to the Metro-North Station at 125th Street, where I would get a train home to the suburbs. Instead, the night dragged on. While irately waiting at the baggage carousel, I decided to use the courtesy phone nearby to ask about the schedule and where to get the M60 bus, which I’ve use before at LGA. It’s a great convenience for the price of a subway fare.
I punched in the number on the phone for ground transportation details. I heard only a rapid beep-beep-beep. The phone didn’t work at all, not even a busy signal or endless ringing. Total malfunction. This made me wonder about the state of communications equipment at LGA. That was my first concern.
I got my carry-on after midnight and followed a sign to where the M60 would be on the ground level. I walked past the chaotic taxi line, where hundreds of people waited for cabs to come. Honking confusion colored the scene outside baggage claim. At the late hour people were exhausted and frantic to get away from LGA. If anybody wanted to cause problems, they would find a target-rich environment right here.
I didn’t see the M60. Nor did I see any central point where I could get customer service information, nor did I notice any security. I asked one of the very few airport workers around where I could find the M60. She pointed me to the center island of the pickup area. I didn’t find anything there. I asked another worker, who told me the bus could be found on the upper level.
“How do I get there?” I asked.
“Go inside and take the escalator,” she said.
But the building’s doors had signs saying the terminal was closed from midnight to 5 a.m. for maintenance.
“How can I get upstairs if the terminals are closed?” I asked myself. Simple — I just pushed on a door and went right in. Even at 12:15 am, the terminal felt wide open, if dimly lit. People sat against walls with their luggage, others wandered around. Nobody moved them out or kept a security eye on the terminal. Again, maybe I was missing security that was keeping a low profile, but I felt I could stroll anywhere and nobody would stop me. I could have overlooked some type of security in depth — I was more focused on my escape of LGA than on taking mental notes.
I found the escalator and scrambled upstairs. I did indeed find the M60, bought my ticket from a vending machine, got on the next bus to come and arrived at 125th Street five minutes before the 1:14 am train arrived. That was the next to last train of the night.
My night at LGA unnerved me. I’ve used the creaky, unloved, inaccessible and under-construction airport for decades. New York Governor Cuomo promises a massive overhaul to raise it to a more world-class level. I applaud that effort, but what I saw suggested he’d better kick some NY butt to raise the basic operations of LGA right now. Have courtesy phones that work; have readily visible customer service reps at all hours so travelers aren’t stumbling around confused and trying to sort out their transportation options. Monitor access to terminals so that “closed” means “closed,” not “closed unless you push on the door.” I can’t imagine the desperation of travelers with small children or those who can’t speak English or lack a sense of where they are going at LGA.
In the wake of the Istanbul bombing, New York will, as always, ramp up security at airports, train stations and other target-rich hubs. That’s all well and good and I welcome the additions. But unless the basic infrastructure works, I’m afraid a temporary uptick in the police presence is not much more than security theater.
And I don’t want to be there when the theater’s curtain comes down.