Affordable Mass Transit To New York’s JFK, Mass Anarchy At LAX

JFK Regional Rail Connections map.

Map of regional rail connections meeting AirTrain at NYC JFK airport.

Michael Goldstein

LAX and JFK airports are the gateways to America’s two largest cities. Unfortunately, getting to and from each airport presents its own set of obstacles, which I recently got to sample on a Thanksgiving journey from Los Angeles to New York and back.

The day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I had an Alaska flight from New York’s JFK to Los Angeles’ LAX. How would we get to JFK, and how would we depart LAX, home of the newly-implemented LAX-IT bus-to-rideshare system?

The distance to the airports in both New York and Los Angeles were surprisingly comparable for me. By road, it’s about 20 miles from my home in the San Fernando Valley to LAX. It was a similar 18.9 miles from my hotel, the World Trade Center Residence Inn in lower Manhattan to JFK via I-495 E and I-678 S.

How long would each trip take? In each city, the only possible answer is “It depends.” Neither LA’s 405 freeway or Queens’ Van Wyck “Expressway” is a joy in rush hour.

However, New York City has an ace in a hole when it comes to getting to or from the airport. That would be the city’s 106-year old subway system. With an 8:15 PM flight on shopping-crazed “Black Friday” we decided to take a chance on it.

Some have described New York’s subway system as “broken”, plagued by  a “morass of train derailments, track fires, arbitrary delays, signal failures, and broken air conditioners.” Other experts believe that infrastructure issues are affecting the system. Between 2012 and 2017, monthly passenger hours lost by delays grew by 45.3 percent, while accessibility issues (such as a lack of elevators) make using the subway hard for the elderly, children and those with mobility issues to use.

However, a $19 billion plan is underway to address such issues, including adding elevators at 50 stations. And despite the problems, in 2016, average weekday subway ridership was 5.7 million, the highest since 1948. Annual ridership was 1.757 billion, according to NY’s MTA, 7th in the world.

One place the subway system can get you is to JFK Airport. Although the JFK Express, a dedicated service known as The Train to The Plane, was discontinued in 1990 due to limited ridership, taking the subway to the driverless AirTrain that serves all terminals and the rental car lot is still a viable option.

So instead of risking rush hour traffic through Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, my wife and I invested $2.75 each in a subway ride. We took the A train from Fulton Street, a short walk from our hotel in downtown Manhattan, to Howard Beach in Queens. At Howard Beach, we exited the subway and rolled our bags to the adjacent AirTrain. There we paid an additional $7.75 each to take the AirTrain to the Alaska terminal.

We left lower Manhattan around 4:30 PM and arrived at the terminal just before 6 PM. We were early enough for our 8:15 PM flight to try again to get into the Alaska Lounge. This time, the lounge was not at capacity, and my PriorityPass got us in. We even got to sample the famed Alaska Airlines pancake machine.

However, getting there via our bargain $10.50 subway journey wasn’t entirely smooth.

Once we determined which train to take, I had to lift two heavy roller suitcases and a backpack over the subway turnstiles. Next step: lug them down an escalator, across the station and down two flights of stairs. (Yes, there are elevators at many NYC subway stations, but finding them, especially those in operating condition, can consume precious time.)

The train was on time and we got seats, two things that don’t always happen. And when one arrives at Howard Beach, switching to AirTrain can present problems if you don’t have at least $7.75 per person on your Metro card. There’s often a big line of travelers trying to figure out the payment machines and pay for a ride.

Nonetheless, AirTrain is much cheaper than taking a taxi, which charge a flat fare of $52 for trips between the airport and Manhattan, plus a $4.50 surcharge during peak hours (4-8 p.m. weekdays, such as our trip). I also found the train much less stressful than being stuck in traffic.

There’s little alternative to being stuck in traffic at LAX, however, as the airport is not accessible by train or light rail. Our flight landed at 11:30 PM, and we didn’t exit the plane and get our bags  until after midnight. Landing at Terminal 6 puts travelers in the middle of the LAX oval. That’s too far for luggage-laden travelers to walk to the LAX-IT lot, leaving us to wait for the shuttle. (Under the new LAX-IT system, Uber, Lyft, and taxi are no longer allowed to pick up passengers at the airport.)

Pushing a luggage cart, we searched for the bus stop. However, when we finally found the stop for our terminal, there were at least 80 passengers waiting for the next bus. So instead we pushed the luggage across the airport. We had to beg people to get out of the way on the narrow sidewalk.

Fifteen minutes later, we found a terminal bus stop with no one waiting. A crowd formed behind us. After another ten minutes, a bus appeared with empty seats. The driver even helped us bring our luggage aboard. After a fifteen minute jaunt around the oval, we entered the LAX-IT lot. We showed an attendant our pin code, confirmed it with the Lyft driver  and after another ten minutes we were heading home. 

The fare was just $34.01, half the $67 I had to pay two weeks earlier to Uber under “surge pricing.” We finally arrived home at 1:30 AM, two hours after landing.

Flying over Thanksgiving is hard. But with more people traveling than ever, cities need to make getting to or leaving the airport a less confusing, not to mention aggravating, process.

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LAX and JFK airports are the gateways to America’s two largest cities. Unfortunately, getting to and from each airport presents its own set of obstacles, which I recently got to sample on a Thanksgiving journey from Los Angeles to New York and back.

The day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I had an Alaska flight from New York’s JFK to Los Angeles’ LAX. How would we get to JFK, and how would we depart LAX, home of the newly-implemented LAX-IT bus-to-rideshare system?

The distance to the airports in both New York and Los Angeles were surprisingly comparable for me. By road, it’s about 20 miles from my home in the San Fernando Valley to LAX. It was a similar 18.9 miles from my hotel, the World Trade Center Residence Inn in lower Manhattan to JFK via I-495 E and I-678 S.

How long would each trip take? In each city, the only possible answer is “It depends.” Neither LA’s 405 freeway or Queens’ Van Wyck “Expressway” is a joy in rush hour.

However, New York City has an ace in a hole when it comes to getting to or from the airport. That would be the city’s 106-year old subway system. With an 8:15 PM flight on shopping-crazed “Black Friday” we decided to take a chance on it.

Some have described New York’s subway system as “broken”, plagued by  a “morass of train derailments, track fires, arbitrary delays, signal failures, and broken air conditioners.” Other experts believe that infrastructure issues are affecting the system. Between 2012 and 2017, monthly passenger hours lost by delays grew by 45.3 percent, while accessibility issues (such as a lack of elevators) make using the subway hard for the elderly, children and those with mobility issues to use.

However, a $19 billion plan is underway to address such issues, including adding elevators at 50 stations. And despite the problems, in 2016, average weekday subway ridership was 5.7 million, the highest since 1948. Annual ridership was 1.757 billion, according to NY’s MTA, 7th in the world.

One place the subway system can get you is to JFK Airport. Although the JFK Express, a dedicated service known as The Train to The Plane, was discontinued in 1990 due to limited ridership, taking the subway to the driverless AirTrain that serves all terminals and the rental car lot is still a viable option.

So instead of risking rush hour traffic through Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, my wife and I invested $2.75 each in a subway ride. We took the A train from Fulton Street, a short walk from our hotel in downtown Manhattan, to Howard Beach in Queens. At Howard Beach, we exited the subway and rolled our bags to the adjacent AirTrain. There we paid an additional $7.75 each to take the AirTrain to the Alaska terminal.

We left lower Manhattan around 4:30 PM and arrived at the terminal just before 6 PM. We were early enough for our 8:15 PM flight to try again to get into the Alaska Lounge. This time, the lounge was not at capacity, and my PriorityPass got us in. We even got to sample the famed Alaska Airlines pancake machine.

However, getting there via our bargain $10.50 subway journey wasn’t entirely smooth.

Once we determined which train to take, I had to lift two heavy roller suitcases and a backpack over the subway turnstiles. Next step: lug them down an escalator, across the station and down two flights of stairs. (Yes, there are elevators at many NYC subway stations, but finding them, especially those in operating condition, can consume precious time.)

The train was on time and we got seats, two things that don’t always happen. And when one arrives at Howard Beach, switching to AirTrain can present problems if you don’t have at least $7.75 per person on your Metro card. There’s often a big line of travelers trying to figure out the payment machines and pay for a ride.

Nonetheless, AirTrain is much cheaper than taking a taxi, which charge a flat fare of $52 for trips between the airport and Manhattan, plus a $4.50 surcharge during peak hours (4-8 p.m. weekdays, such as our trip). I also found the train much less stressful than being stuck in traffic.

There’s little alternative to being stuck in traffic at LAX, however, as the airport is not accessible by train or light rail. Our flight landed at 11:30 PM, and we didn’t exit the plane and get our bags  until after midnight. Landing at Terminal 6 puts travelers in the middle of the LAX oval. That’s too far for luggage-laden travelers to walk to the LAX-IT lot, leaving us to wait for the shuttle. (Under the new LAX-IT system, Uber, Lyft, and taxi are no longer allowed to pick up passengers at the airport.)

Pushing a luggage cart, we searched for the bus stop. However, when we finally found the stop for our terminal, there were at least 80 passengers waiting for the next bus. So instead we pushed the luggage across the airport. We had to beg people to get out of the way on the narrow sidewalk.

Fifteen minutes later, we found a terminal bus stop with no one waiting. A crowd formed behind us. After another ten minutes, a bus appeared with empty seats. The driver even helped us bring our luggage aboard. After a fifteen minute jaunt around the oval, we entered the LAX-IT lot. We showed an attendant our pin code, confirmed it with the Lyft driver  and after another ten minutes we were heading home. 

The fare was just $34.01, half the $67 I had to pay two weeks earlier to Uber under “surge pricing.” We finally arrived home at 1:30 AM, two hours after landing.

Flying over Thanksgiving is hard. But with more people traveling than ever, cities need to make getting to or leaving the airport a less confusing, not to mention aggravating, process.

I've won several journalism awards, and my writing on travel has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, American Way, Southwest Airlines Spirit, Successful Meetings and Unit...