The Golden Age of flying instantly conjures images of attractive couples dressed to the nines as they board a small jet to whisk them away in what must have seemed like no time at all. Onboard they’re served decadent meals with all the finishes and afterwards they smoke a cigarette while enjoying an after dinner drink in the plane’s lounge. The modern traveler hasn’t experienced this kind of luxury in decades and that’s not likely to change any time soon. This desire to return to a more civilized era of flying isn’t only what prompted me to book a stay at the new(ish) TWA Hotel at JFK Airport in New York, it was the impetus for the hotel itself. Opening just last year, as soon as I heard about this ambitious project I knew I had to visit and so when my travel plans took me to New York, I didn’t waste any time in planning a fun day at the TWA Hotel. While the property doesn’t exactly live up to the hype, today I want to share what the experience of staying at the ultra-mod TWA Hotel is really like, from the sublime to the, well, not so sublime.
TWA Flight Center
On May 28, 1962 the TWA Flight Center was officially dedicated. The construction schedule had its delays so that famed architect Eero Saarinen could fine-tune the ambitious design. Featuring a prominent wing-shaped thin shell roof, the TWA terminal was one of the first with enclosed passenger jetways and if the design looks familiar, it should. Saarinen’s unique blend of mid-century architectural styles can be seen around the world, but especially at Dulles International Airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Inside, the terminal was like a scene from Mad Men. Seemingly endless tube-shaped red-carpeted corridors, iconic lounges and those massive windows allowing for expansive views came to define the TWA Flight Center over the years. Although iconic, the design ultimately proved difficult to adapt as planes got bigger and the number of people flying increased exponentially. The terminal officially ended operations in 2001 and the original Saarinen head house stood empty as the powers that be decided what to do with this unique facility.
Then in 2015, it was announced that the building would be converted into the TWA Hotel, a new on-site hotel for airport passengers that finally opened its doors for business in 2019 with an impressive 512 guest rooms and a 10,000 square foot observation space. It was into this building frozen in time that I excitedly entered just a few weeks ago as I embarked on my own TWA adventure.
Those first few moments in the main terminal were just as remarkable as I had imagined. Everything looks just like those old photos I’d perused before my visit from the check-in counters to the iconic Arrival-Departure board looming high above. It was early in the morning and the stillness was disquieting. It’s like being in any airport terminal nearly alone, the quiet seems just wrong for some reason. But this isn’t a terminal anymore, it’s a hotel catering to passengers who want an easy walk to their morning flight or need a place to relax over a long layover. With this in mind, the TWA hotel offers a number of day options, which is what I had booked – an 8am-8pm slot. It’s a smart idea and really is ideal for passengers who need somewhere to relax and unwind in between long flights. The check-in process is a little odd, an entirely automated self check-in – I even got to make my own room keys. Walking past the Center’s signature sunken lounge and down those red-carpeted hallways, I had indeed and instantly been transported back in time to those reportedly halcyon days when flying was fun.
With more than 500 rooms, there’s plenty of space in the hotel spread out among two different wings. The web site lauds the views from the rooms, but as I walked into my ultra-quiet guest room I was disappointed to see just a generic scene outside. But inside the room was a different story. Just as designers have spent a considerable amount of time restoring the public areas to their former glory, the guest rooms also reflect this mid-century vibe. Although modern conveniences and amenities are easily found, so are copies of Life magazine from the 1960s and vintage TWA travel posters hanging over the bed. In the minibar are those drinks and snacks you’d expect, but so are some quirky items like an Etch-a-Sketch. Bright red TWA pencils sit next to the rotary phone, which surely must confuse any Gen-Z checking in for the night. Although I didn’t actually sleep in the room, it was spacious and comfortable and I could easily see myself booking it in between longer flights.
I was there though to enjoy myself for the day and make great use of the famed public spaces, starting with breakfast. This is where the glossy veneer started to rub off and in fact a common theme throughout my brief experience at the TWA Hotel was terrible service. Sitting down to eat in yet another ultra-mod space, the decor and views were amazing and while the menu looked delicious, it took me a very long time to find that out. After being seated it took ten minutes for the server to acknowledge my existence, another ten minutes to get some coffee and let’s not even talk about how long it took to order and eventually receive my food. It’s a shame, because the service lets down the incredible atmosphere of the hotel and it’s also strange given how much of an investment bringing the TWA Flight Center took. In the New York City area surely there are experienced servers, bartenders and hosts who could be hired to fill in the gaps. In my experience though what makes a great hotel great isn’t spending a ton of money on furniture and linens, it’s having incredible service and impeccable staff members, neither of which sadly exist at the TWA Hotel.
Terrible service notwithstanding, I spent the rest of the day doing as much as I could. I took a self-guided tour around the property, my mouth permanently open in awe and excitement. If you have any interest whatsoever in aviation or travel, then spending time here is a must. It’s a playground for aviation geeks and a source of amazement for the rest of us.
The rooftop pool and observation deck are one of the highlights of the experience and lounging poolside or in the infinity pool was a highlight of my day. Even though it was winter the pool is still accessible since it turns into a massive hot tub when it’s chilly out. Also transformed for the winter months is the rooftop restaurant which turned into a 1960s-style ski chalet, complete with cozy decor, yummy drinks and fondue. The fondue was actually a point of consternation for me and again points towards a very inexperienced staff, but this time in the kitchen. I’ve had great cheese fondue any number of times, but this was not it. The cheese seemed like partially melted Velveeta and the accompaniments provided to dip in the lukewarm cheese included for some reason croutons (?), gherkins and cauliflower. Not exactly the Swiss-style fondue of our Alpine dreams. It is though important to keep in mind that one does not patronize the TWA hotel for its food or, apparently, its service. No, one visits to simply exist in the remarkable environment that they’ve managed to recreate so expertly.
The final aspect of my stay that I couldn’t wait to experience was enjoying a cocktail onboard the Lockheed Constellation “Connie” L-1649A. Painstakingly restored to original condition and outfitted with a 1950s TWA livery, walking onboard the Connie, taking an aisle seat and proceeding to enjoy an afternoon beverage and snacks was a dream come true. Even if you have a passing interest in aviation, do not miss your opportunity to board the Connie and sample for yourself what flying in the Golden Age of aviation was all about.
Overall, I’m thrilled that I took the time to visit the TWA Hotel and experience it for myself. The decor, the attention to detail and the general feeling was just as I had hoped. If I’m appraising the experience as a hotel though, then things start to fall apart. The problems are almost entirely due to the front-line staff, they’re just not good. Whether it was at the front desk, a waiter or bartender or even pool attendant, no one really seemed to know what they were doing. I understand it’s a new hotel, but there are plenty of people out there with hospitality experience that I’m sure are looking for jobs. However, I do think that the TWA hits all of the other marks and I honestly had an amazing day luxuriating and just enjoying myself. I sincerely hope that the hotel fixes some of the current problems because the property is so unique and special that it can’t be allowed to fail.