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Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal has a new neighbor that embodies the realities of 21st-century air travel.

JETBLUE AIRWAYS TERMINAL 5 Queens, NY Designed by Gensler, Arup, and Rockwell Group www.gensler.com

Greg Lindsay, on the scene at JetBlue’s Terminal 5

Pity the Gensler architects who were handed the task of building JetBlue a new terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, when the most iconic and beloved terminal of all time is practically sitting on its front lawn. For decades, Eero Saarinen’s 1962 TWA Flight Center was the standard against which the aesthetic merits of all other airports were judged. His swooping bird-of-prey structure has since been trumped by Sir Norman Foster’s lofty cathedrals in Hong Kong and Beijing—the world’s largest buildings under one roof. Each of those terminals is designed to handle more passengers in a year than the entirety of JFK, and each boasted price tags running into the billions. They are everything Gensler’s terminal is not: monuments to national pride, the bellows of worldwide commerce, and the heartthrobs of critics everywhere. “Our architecture,” Saarinen once said, “is too humble. It should be prouder, much richer, and larger than we see it today.” People listened, albeit only in the East.

This is no fault of Gensler’s, or of its partners on the project—the engineering wizards of Arup and the consummate showman David Rockwell. The trio executed their brief to the letter, constructing a handsome, efficient, and value-engineered-within-an-inch-of-its-life steel box embodying the new realities of American air travel. It is the first true post-9/11, post–cheap oil terminal, and its priorities point toward a kinder, gentler experience than the toxic mix of frustration, despair, and rage that has prevailed for the last seven years. The partners have eschewed the “hardware” of monumentalism for the “software” of better food, bigger bathrooms, and public theater. The real question is whether it can withstand the grind of 20 million footfalls each year. Saarinen’s masterpiece couldn’t.

The new terminal’s low, sloping roofline keeps its head down in a show of deference to the lawn ornament out front. “We never wanted to compete with Saarinen,” Gensler’s principal architect William D. Hooper told me during a tour. (As if that legacy weren’t intimidating enough, JetBlue’s previous center of operations—Terminal 6—was designed by I.M. Pei.) The fallopian tubes between Saarinen’s Flight Center and its vanished departure halls have been preserved, although they now end awkwardly in stairwells stuck between the ticket hall and baggage claim.

The vast majority of passengers will arrive by car or cab, anyway, entering the hall with boarding passes and carry-on luggage already in hand. As such, the ticket counters and kiosks have been shunted to the sides, leaving the security checkpoint to dominate the room. Gensler stacked 20 lanes end-on-end to create the largest single checkpoint in the world. It’s a brute-force (but effective) solution to lines elsewhere seen only at Disneyland. And in a pair of nods to the Transportation Safety Administration’s shoe-phobia, the checkpoints’ floors have a rubbery, stocking-friendly texture, while a 225-foot-long bench awaits half-undressed travelers on the opposite side.

Once osmosis has carried them through the security membrane, travelers enter David Rockwell’s domain, i.e., “the Marketplace.” “The nexus of the terminal,” in Rockwell’s words, is a hub of shops and restaurants, including a truly ambitious lineup of brasseries, trattorias, sushi joints, and tapas bars. Before JetBlue, no one had attempted a white-tablecloth restaurant at JFK since the Raymond Loewy–designed coffee shop in Saarinen’s terminal. But as airport “dwell times” have soared since 9/11, sit-down meals have become viable again.

David Rockwell on the viability of the "Marketplace." Rockwell’s personal contributions are a chandelier of flat-screens floating above a grandstand where idling departing passengers will be able to watch the eternal stream of new arrivals. Rockwell went all the way back to William Whyte’s pioneering studies of human traffic in public spaces to create the layout and placement of his grandstand, which doubles as a traffic funnel.

Once past the Marketplace, the terminal is more prosaic—artfully, purposefully so. “Everything is done with an eye toward usefulness,” Hooper told me, like the special slurry of scuff-camouflaging terrazzo in the halls, or the virtually indestructible blue carpeting that just might outlast the terminal. The only razzle-dazzle is provided by workstations at each gate from which passengers will be able to order food for delivery—an eye-opening innovation with the potential to be a customer-service disaster at peak hours.

But the most crucial feature of all, at least from the airline’s perspective, is one that will likely go unnoticed by most passengers. Small closets stocked with cleaning supplies have been placed at each gate; the faster JetBlue can wipe down its planes, the faster it can reload and get them back in the air, saving money lost to delays and increasing each flight’s efficiency. The same impulse is behind the terminal’s dual taxiways, allowing one plane to slip into a gate while another is pulling out. These may sound like small things, but they’re the blocking-and-tackling on which a profitable airline is built—just ask Southwest, JetBlue’s spiritual progenitor, which has turned a profit every quarter since 1973.

JetBlue hasn’t been so lucky. Buffeted by historically high oil prices, it posted a $7 million loss in the second quarter of 2008, as opposed to a $21 million profit the year before. It sold nearly a fifth of itself to Lufthansa for $300 million, then chipped in almost a third of that to cover the cost of building its terminal. JFK’s owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, covered the rest of the $743 million bill. This is all a way of saying no one will ever build a terminal quite like Saarinen’s again, at least on these shores, because no one can afford to. In the meantime, treat yourself to a panini the next time you’re passing through. Your flight probably isn’t leaving for another two hours.

Greg Lindsay is a contributing editor at Fast Company. His book Aerotropolis, a critical look at air transport, urbanism, and globalization, will be published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.