The TWA Hotel's Grand "Soft" Opening
It has been said that one cannot return to the home they once knew. Well, I put that to the test this last week. Back in 2015, it was announced that MCR Morse and jetBlue Airways Corp. were partnering to breathe new life into my (and tons of other avgeeks and former TWA employees) iconic Flight Center at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Construction happened along at rapid pace, it seemed every few months the hotels website (www.twahotel.com) was posting updates and progress reports and new and kitschy vendors that will open storefronts or furnish the hotel in some way. It was all exciting stuff, and soon the word was put out that the hotel wanted actual TWA airline artifacts. Well, I had sent a few things their way. I couldn't just not give anything to the hotel, I mean, they are re-opening the very terminal my parents came through when they emigrated to the United States in 1963 and 1978, respectively.
It was announced the hotel would have 500+ rooms, and conference/event facilities. It would be the only functioning on-airport hotel since the closure of the Ramada Plaza JFK back in December 2009. I was happy to hear this, as JFK is one of the crossroads of the world, and as such SHOULD have an on-property hotel or 3. LAX has hotel row on Century Blvd (which is on airport owned ground), London-Heathrow has several hotels within walking distance of the terminals, Rome-Fiumicino has a Hilton built right on top of the main terminal, etc. etc. The TWA hotel would have 8 restaurants and lounges, a rooftop infinity pool, the infamous Lockheed Constellation that TWA flew worldwide, and so on. From the descriptions, it was shaping up to be quite the spectacular place to rest. I was getting seriously excited to stay here.
Fast forward to 2019.
I got an email in January saying that bookings would open at noon on Valentine's Day. I set my timer. Noon came around and I was one of the lucky ones that managed to get their booking in. However, I wasn't allowed to book consecutive nights, so I booked a separate reservation for the second night, in the same category of room. This little bug has thus been fixed from what I've heard. One little snafu on the electronic side was no big deal to me and I overlooked it.
Between February and May I had gotten in touch with the operating manager of the hotel regarding him showing me and several other industry insiders the property before check-in. He said he'd be happy to, and to email him closer to opening day. Fine, I realize he's probably up to his ears in work and requests and everything else. So, I waited till two weeks before opening day, and he told me to hit him up when I get to the hotel. Works for me. In the meantime, my tour had grown from 2 people to between 8 and 10. Shouldn't be much of a problem for the manager at all.
Departure Day finally rolled around and all during the day I had been running around (I had yet to start packing), picking up my tuxedo (which arrived 2 days late, so any changes I had to make wouldn't happen), tying up a few other loose ends, and finally getting home that afternoon to start packing. Took less than 20 minutes, and I was out the door again, and on my way to the airport.
For this trip, I had a special carryon with me, including Philbin, my stuffed bear I carry on all my travels, and post his photos to Instagram for charity. I had the carryon bag the TWA Hotel sent me for donating a few things to them, which had a very cool retro looking JFK bag tag on it tied in twine. I had also dug through my remaining treasure trove of TWA stuff and found a box of ticket jackets (for those of you who remember, back in the day, airline tickets were placed in a ticket jacket with your current boarding pass tucked into a slit on the outside, and your connecting passes nestled inside.) TWA gave out to Travel Agents for tickets issued on TWA. From the reactions of the gate agents, they appreciated the touch (quite a few of the American Airlines ground crew was former TWA), and stopped to take pics of the setup.
Even though I'm not a fan of the semi-transcontinental red-eye flights from Salt Lake City to the East Coast (there's just not enough time to get a decent amount of sleep, with flights ranging from 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 hours), but both my flights to Charlotte, and onwards up to JFK were fantastic, we even arrived into JFK a tad early, even the bags didn’t make it to the claim for a good 45 minutes, allowing me to peruse the Sunglass Hut right next to the escalator down to baggage claim for a much needed pair of new shades. Best thing about arriving at Terminal 8, in this humble Travel Genius' opinion, is the fact there is a fully functioning Dunkin' right next to the baggage office. So, with bags and badly needed iced coffee in hand, off I went to catch the AirTrain to Terminal 5.
I love the Airtrain, but the way they have the stations set up at some of the terminals is mind numbing. Take Terminal 5 for example. The station was attached to the parking garage, which makes sense, but when it was built, this was the Terminal 6 stop, and that Terminal has long since been demolished to build jetBlue's big Terminal 5. The walk across the skywalk from the Airtrain stop to the escalators down to the terminal itself is a good 500-yard walk (at least there are moving sidewalks to help alleviate the walk). From there you head down three floors to the baggage claim and follow the signs for the TWA Hotel elevator.
Once you are on the 2nd floor (the "1960's TWA Hotel" level), you come to a replica of Jack Frye's office off to your right, and a huge mural on the left of the Stars of Hollywood that TWA used to fly. Straight ahead, and once I stepped onto that beloved plush red carpet, I started shedding tears from all the memories I had going back and forth from the terminal to my flights back in the days when I used to fly TWA. Usually it was to catch the flight to Athens, St. Louis, or Salt Lake City (when TWA operated that lovely route with the gargantuan L-1011, then the diminutive MD-80, albeit with a stop in Denver on the Eastbound leg). I think I cried the whole way down the tunnel and into the iconic Flight Center itself.
Upon entering the still-cavernous Flight Center, to your right you have the ramp that used to head down to Baggage Claim, but now ends up wrapping around to the Hotel's Front Desk, (as well as a still under-construction Reading Room) which was the original First Class/Ambassador Class/Trans World First/Trans World One and VIP check-in. There were several lounges set up for the waiting masses, but when I arrived, we were still several hours away from the opening of check-in, so I looked around and reminisced A LOT. Passing through the front desk area you are in the central part of the lobby, where passengers used to enter. In between the entrances you have the iconic Information desk with the unmistakable clacking of the Solari Flight Information Board behind. Further down where the Economy Class and Group check-in was, the hotel management has setup a temporary food court and displayed some very interesting TWA artifacts, including a 1962 Chrysler with TWA license plates, and one of the old electric carts.
Back in the center of the terminal and up the shallow stairs you've got the Sunken Lounge in front of you, with that great big window out onto what used to be the ramp and all the TWA jetliners at the gates waiting for their next flights. Now what you see is jetBlue's monstrosity of a terminal, and closer to the windows, a beautifully restored 1958-vintage Lockheed Constellation, which is open to the public. Smack in the middle of the Sunken Lounge (where passengers used to sit, relax, and wait for their flight to be called, is another Solari Flight Information Board. This one has been programmed to flip to various greetings, a TWA jet plane and logos, as well as some of the participants involved in the repurposing and building of the hotel. For someone who hasn't set foot in the building in 18+ years, it was all heady and emotional stuff to be back in there.
On either side of the main stairs are restrooms, gift shops, and phone banks with old school rotary phones (that still work!) and for a dime you can place a call, or as the phone says, try your luck! On the right side of the Sunken Lounge is the second tunnel, which used to lead to Flight Wing 2, where TW Express, Piedmont, and other partners with TWA had their gates. now that tunnel serves as a passageway to the second tower of hotel rooms and another access point for the underground event ballrooms. This is the tower with the soon to be opened Infinity pool on the roof with the amazing rampside views.
Back in the Flight Center, on either side of the Sunken Lounge are the curving stairs heading up to the Paris Cafe and Lisbon Lounge, now run by Celebrity Chef Jean-Georges, and the old Ambassadors Club on the other side, with some fantastic displays of uniforms worn by flight crew throughout the years, as well as the tiny hidden semi-circular seating areas where icons like various Popes, the Rat Pack, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, and scores of others used to wait for their flights in relative anonymity and peace and quiet.
One of the centerpieces of the hotel is the static display of the Connie out on the partial ramp. This gorgeous bird was lovingly restored and trucked down from Maine by the expert model makers from Atlantic Models of Miami, Florida. The plane is completely refurbished, right down to the instrumentation in the cockpit. The inside is in the process of being turned into a bar and lounge, but with no air conditioning, I don't see very many people would use it for more than a few minutes in the summer months. Other than that, she is a beautiful addition to the hotel's features. That's one good thing about the property, it has the airline stuff down pat.
Heading into the Hotel Towers, on the bottom level is the event center with its ballrooms and smaller conference rooms. Spread throughout the area are cubbies with a decent amount of TWA artifacts (including some of my very own) and memorabilia. These are all displayed with care and attention to detail, including an almost complete MD-80 galley. Some of the iconic "paper dress" uniforms from the 1960's are also on display down here as well. Like I said before, the hotel management sure knew what it was doing regarding the airline stuff they were displaying.
Both towers have 7 additional floors of rooms, and for the rooms that were completed, they were fantastic. But more on that later. After my own little walkaround I went back into the Flight Center and stowed my bags behind the media desk and met up with several of my group. I then tried to get in touch with the manager that I had set up the tour with, to no avail. Luckily Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, and former TWA employee himself, was with us, and he dang near grabbed the manager by the collar (once he was located), explained that half of us had flown in from the West Coast just for this tour and instead of sending us on our own to wander around, and seeing as we had several groups that are looking to book this hotel for event space and room blocks, we'd like a more formal setup, as was promised in the emails I had. The look on the manager's face was priceless and he told us to wait a few minutes while he delegated off a few tasks and came back to personally take us on the promised tour.
We were taken all over during the tour, except up to the pool deck, but as it was still under construction, I understood. It was also implied reservations at any of the restaurants and the pool bar (obviously) went out the window for opening day. Not a "grand" opening by any means whatsoever. Once the tour was over with, check-in supposedly was open, so we all queued up, much to the surprise of the front desk staff. At the TWA Hotel, check-in is not in the traditional sense one would think for a hotel that bills itself as 4-star establishment. You line up to a kiosk (built out of the god forsaken Apple iPad), where you are supposed to swipe your card and scan your keys yourself. It didn’t work for most of the folks with reservations. The front desk staff was inundated with lost and rightfully frustrated patrons just wanting to check in and get their room keys. Luckily my wait was only an hour and a half long. There were others who were waiting for 4+ hours.
With room key finally in hand I headed up to my room, in the Saarinen Tower, on the 7th floor, a King Executive Jr. Suite as it is called on the website. Hiked up the tunnel to the entry point only to find the elevators were inoperative. One of the construction crew was coming out of the rooms on that floor and saw me schlepping my bags and told me to come around behind him as there was the staff elevator that was currently being used to take guests up to their rooms. 4-stars indeed.
Finally got up to my room, walked in, and lo and behold, no power. At all. Put my stuff down and I heard a jolt through the walls and the lights in my room came on. I had very little time to get ready, so I hopped in the shower (with no door), cleaned up, put my tuxedo on, and ran out of the room and on down to the festivities.
As was stated earlier, any reservations made for dinner or out on the Connie kind of went out the window, but I was glad to get a chance to go up into the Connie and have that first glass of Prosecco before dinner with the group up in the Paris Cafe. I gotta say something about the Connie first. She is GORGEOUS. The livery was only a tad off, but other than that she was restored faithfully. She was still having work done on the inside to bring to full bar worthiness, but I was not going to complain, I was just happy to be there.
Took some photos with old and new friends on my way up to the Paris Cafe, even made new ones during dinner with several of the staff there. For a restaurant bearing Jean-George's name, the food was ok, but nothing stellar or noteworthy. You could get the same fare from any outlet in any terminal around JFK. As for some of the prices (especially in the Sunken Lounge), they are astronomical, and no one on any normal day would pay those prices for a drink or for a small bowl of guacamole. The only somewhat decently priced place to get a bite was in the "food court" downstairs.
After dinner and everything else had died down for the evening, I headed back up to my room to unwind and get off my feet. Tried to plug in my phone and BiPap machine, and sparks were shooting out of the outlets. Insane. I tried another outlet in the bathroom (thank god I had an extension cord with me), and that worked, so I plugged my BiPap in there, and let my portable charger charge my phone overnight. I wanted to call down to the front desk and notify them of what happened, but apparently there was no phone in my room. Also, I looked around for a trash can, nothing doing. There was a cheap plastic mat with trash on one side and recycle on the other side, so God and everyone else could see what you're tossing. Once I was finally ready for bed, I tried to figure out where to turn the lights off, but couldn’t, as the light switch in the entry cuts power to the ENTIRE room. Awkward. It's like Motel 6 says "we'll leave the light on". At least the TWA Hotel delivered on this, even though it wasn't promised.
There were quite a few other things that irked me about how not ready the hotel was, especially for what it was trying to position itself as. The nightly rate for my type of room was $309 plus tax. Well, for that kind of rate you can stay in Manhattan at almost any 4-star hotel there. The TWA Hotel has no room service, no 24-hour dining option, no secure access for the room floors (a HUGE no-no for anything over a 2-star establishment), no wake-up call possibility, no concierge or baggage porters, all these are little things you'd expect from a hotel charging and acting like 4-star worthy lodging.
The next morning came and I awoke to the most spectacular view. I had the Flight Center taking up a good half of the view, and the other half was the goings on over at Terminal 4, with Airbus A380's and Boeing 747's from nations the world over displaying their colors and flags. I sat there for a good 45 minutes just watching. Luckily, I was staying over another night, but I had to report what happened the night before, so downstairs I went, and into a scene of pure bedlam. The front desk was drowning for everyone who stayed over the night before and had problems. Looks like most of the group I was chumming with had issues too. My turn finally came up and I told the agent I’m not checking out, I have one more night and when I booked the rooms, the website wouldn’t allow two consecutive nights, nor was there a number to call to fix the problem. Then I told her about the issues with the room and was then directed over to a supervisor who promptly dealt with our group and fixing our problems to our satisfaction. Or at least, mostly satisfied. I can't complain myself, I kind of knew what I was getting into by booking opening night. I just had to be here. To be in that historic terminal was all I wanted.
The Travel Genius' Opinion:
The TWA Hotel is nowhere near ready to be open. For anything except walking through the Flight Center portion and to hold an event. I expect within the next few months, they'll have ironed out most of the bugs and problems, and possibly try to redo the rooms to have a little more accessibility or be more user-friendly. Or at least working electrical outlets that won't shoot sparks out in the middle of the night. I wouldn’t mind coming back in say, late Fall and see how the problems have been fixed and to walk thought that glorious and perfect Flight Center one more time.