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The TWA Flight Center, designed by the celebrated Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and once one of the most recognisable structures in the US, is popularly understood to have the shape of a bird. “A nice try, but notice how it never got off the ground?”, says one pigeon to another, as they contemplate the terminal’s soaring wing-like roofs in a contemporary cartoon.

In fact, inspiration for the terminal’s design came from Saarinen’s breakfast. “If you take a grapefruit and bend it in a certain way, it gives you the two flare-ups,” recalled Kevin Roche, one of Saarinen’s associates, in Designing TWA (Park Books, 2015). Whether avian or citrus-inspired, the terminal is the greatest architectural icon of the jet age. It opened in 1962 at what was then still known as Idlewild Airport, now John F Kennedy International. (Saarinen, already a star, attended JFK’s inauguration in 1961. The architect died later that year, and so didn’t live to see the terminal completed.)

I last passed through in 1991, when I was 17. I arrived alone and on foot, from Pan Am’s nearby Worldport (where I’d just landed after a homestay in Japan), to catch a connecting flight to Albany, near my hometown in western Massachusetts. Pan Am wouldn’t last the year; TWA made it to 2001, when the Flight Center was shuttered too. 

As time passed the former terminal took on an almost ghostly hue among the bustle of jets, cars and travellers, even as it avoided not only demolition but a scheme to lift the entire structure on to a boat bound for Helsinki. Finally, in May this year — just in time for my birthday — its transformation into a hotel was complete. My present from my partner was a night’s stay. Our happy experience left me nostalgic — for aviation’s past, and my own — as well as newly optimistic about an airport that remains as important to the world as any.


When the TWA terminal opened in 1962, the democratisation of American air travel was well under way, and an architectural critic noted approvingly that Saarinen’s building embodied “the magnificence which belongs to the average man today”. (In fact the boom in passenger numbers at the airport — from fewer than 4m in 1955, when Saarinen began working on the project, to more than 11m in 1962 — meant the Flight Center was already undersized by the time it opened.)

In what was once the main hall — now the hotel’s lobby — mingling remains the name of the game. Indeed, as we walked through it we enjoyed a remarkable number of friendly interactions with strangers: with awed, neck-craning shutterbugs; with uniformed airport staff wandering in before or after their shifts elsewhere at JFK; and with other hotel guests checking in for either a post-flight nap (day rooms are available) or a jet-lag-free, overnight escape from Manhattan and the 21st century.

Watching one well-dressed but touchingly giddy older couple carefully stage a photograph — they’d met at that very spot, more than 40 years ago — reminded me to reach out to Mary Gair, a former TWA cabin crew member with whom I corresponded after the publication of my first book. Gair, now 75, worked for TWA between 1965 and 1972. With a degree in fine arts, she’s particularly well placed to appreciate the building in which her many journeys began. “I remember feeling a great sense of pride and excitement walking through the terminal,” she told me over the telephone. “And the openness. It’s so sculptural.”

She recalled the tiled portions of the floors — “you could actually hear your heels clicking as you walked to the gate” — and the frequency with which one still encountered first-time flyers back then. Hollywood-bound celebrities featured prominently, too. (“Probably Howard Hughes had something to do with that.”) On her many flights from New York she served Milton Berle; Frankie Avalon — “of course, a crush of mine”; and, on a nonstop “to the coast”, ie, Los Angeles, none other than Kirk Douglas. “He was the most likeable, charming man . . . he was interested in me, and what I was doing. That really stayed with me.”

These days the standouts in the former terminal include the hotel’s vintage-attired crew members, including sunglasses-clad, smartly dressed “pilots” posing beneath the restored clicketyclack departure board (which displays a potpourri of fictitious 1960s-era flights, with only the occasional anachronism). Note, too, the consistency of the lobby’s colours (vivid red and white), seating (Saarinen was also a furniture designer, and collaborated with Charles Eames), and typeface (known as “Flight Center Gothic”, it was designed by the firm Pentagram to echo the terminal’s original font). Overlooking some new-hotel glitches — including a shutdown of the New York street food-inspired dining court, after it failed its first health inspection — almost everything in this restoration appears to be true to Saarinen’s original goal: “A total environment where each part was the consequence of another and all belonged to the same form-world.”

The 512 bedrooms are located in two new-build “wings” and reached via the iconic, red-carpeted tubes that once led to the aircraft, and — in the words of a 1962 internal TWA document — to “the excitement of air travel and distant lands”. But first you have a tough choice to make: a room with a view over the former terminal, or one that looks out on to the aprons, taxiways and runways of America’s most famous airport?

We opted for the latter. And while I am, of course, among the most biased observers possible, I found it enormously pleasing to watch airliners move steadily and silently beyond the aquarium-thick glass, bound for or just returned from the farthest corners of the world. It was the finest opportunity I’ve had in a while to consider the peculiar, seamless and anonymous world that aeroplanes have made, and to imagine all the still-unique places they connect across it. As a pilot, it was with particular joy — pride, even — that I watched individual 747s that I myself have flown (including one now in a vintage livery) as they arrived from London, seemingly one right after another.

The only distractions from the aeroplanes were the room’s seemingly limitless array of TWA-branded materials (pencils, business-class-style wash-kits, etc) and vintage touches that include a rotary telephone (offering free worldwide calls, if you can be bothered to dial); a minibar with Don Draper-calibre glassware; and a beautiful, comfy and bright red Saarinen-designed “Womb” chair.

Before dinner, I recommend a trip to the rooftop pool (you can book pool time even if you’re not a hotel guest). The vibe there was one I’d last experienced a few years ago, when some friends invited me to Manhattan’s Soho House. So when I saw a reflection of an A380’s tail in the lenses of a pair of Gucci sunglasses perched on the bar, I couldn’t help but start to script an alternative, imaginary episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie Bradshaw dates a pilot. Apparently, the heated pool will be open even in the depths of New York’s dark and snowy winters. 

An alternative pre-dinner venue is the bar in a triple-tailed Lockheed Constellation aeroplane that’s now permanently chocked behind the hotel — even if Gair, the retired TWA cabin crew member, doesn’t have particularly fond memories of the “Connies”. Compared to the jets that replaced it, the Constellation flew at lower, more turbulent altitudes. It was smaller, too, and Gair, at 5ft 8.5in — “plus we wore heels then, that adds a couple of inches” — didn’t find it the easiest environment to work in. “I felt very big in those Connies,” she told me with a laugh. I’ve promised to buy her a drink in the Constellation — which made its own momentous return to Gotham this spring, by road — whenever she and I are next in town.

After stops at both the upstairs pool and the downstairs Connie, my partner and I finally made our way to dinner at the Paris Café, the hotel’s main restaurant. In a just-opened establishment, the service wasn’t reliable — our dessert menus touched down well before our main courses themselves did, for example — but the staff were friendly, the food good and the space itself, in the main hall of Saarinen’s masterpiece, is extraordinary. Then it was back to our room, where the late evening air show was just getting started. We watched in silence as one enormous glowing jet after another lifted off — bound for Europe, for South America, for who knew where — until even I started to yawn, and at last we lowered the blind. 

Details

The TWA hotel (twahotel.com) has double rooms from $243 per night. A ‘Day Stay’, from 10am to 4pm for example, costs from $185. To access the pool area, non-residents need to make a reservation at the Pool Bar

More plane-spotting paradises

Los Angeles I’ve said it before and it’s worth repeating: the tastiest plane-spotting location on Earth is the In-N-Out Burger joint at West 92nd Street and South Sepulveda Boulevard, near Los Angeles International Airport. After a day on the beach, perhaps, come here in the late afternoon. Order a shake, don your best pair of Aviators and watch airliners from across the world descend through the last few hundred feet of gloriously golden California light. 

Melbourne As the co-founder of Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler has more reason than most to contemplate the wonder of air travel. When friends or family are due to arrive at Melbourne Airport, he’ll often go early to watch jets from a viewpoint near the junction of Sunbury Road and Oaklands Road, just north of Australia’s second-busiest airfield. “It’s popular enough that in summer an ice-cream van often sets up there to cater to plane watchers,” he told me. “And there’s a bus stop so young enthusiasts without their own wheels can get there.”

Nice One of my colleagues, Geri Moore, flies Airbus A320 series jets from Heathrow. Her favourite plane-spotting venue is the seafront in Nice, especially when southwesterly winds favour approaches to the airport from the north-east. These approaches, which often feature large overwater turns under crystalline blue skies, are some of Europe’s most visually impressive. After touchdown, Moore typically heads down to the seafront for a coffee along the Quai des États-Unis, a swim in the turquoise waters, and breathtakingly close-up views of the latest arrivals as they bank above the sea. 

Skiathos Paul Papadimitriou and I share the personal fortitude that comes from growing up with a perplexing surname, and also a deep love of aeroplanes. But as the co-host of Layovers, an all-things-air-travel-related podcast, he flies to many places I’ve never been. His top recommendation is the Amaretto Cafe Snack Bar, next to the short runway on the Greek island of Skiathos, which Papadimitriou occasionally flies to from the even shorter runway at London City Airport. “Skiathos is mental”— a European version of the famous beach-by-the-runway on the Caribbean island of St Maarten, he reports. “Aircraft are literally just over you.” Another favourite of this former Tokyo resident are the observation decks at Haneda Airport. They’re open to everyone, not just ticketed passengers.

Do you have a favourite place for plane-spotting? Let us know about it in the comments section below 

Mark Vanhoenacker is the author of ‘Skyfaring’ and ‘How to Land a Plane’. He flies the Boeing 787 for British Airways. @markv747mark.vanhoenacker@ft.com

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