Run that past me again, was my response when I saw the banner on the JFK website. “Cell Phone Lot” it read.
Another tightening of the travel security belt, I guessed, with ever-tougher regulations from the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) now forcing us to leave our mobile phones at a special depot at the airport before we check in.
Happily, my speculation proved completely wrong. The Cell Phone Lot turns out to be a car park. It is simply the logical conclusion of the fact that the mobile telephone is as much a part of international travel as the passport. If someone is picking you up at New York’s leading international airport, they can wait at the Cell Phone Lot - located near the airport’s entrance, just off the Van Wyck Expressway that is the freeway to and from Manhattan. The Port Authority of New York, which runs the airport, promises “All the terminals can be accessed from this lot in less than five minutes”.
The idea is to do away with the endless “circling” that plagues airports such as JFK. With “no-stopping” zones, and strictly limited parking close to terminals, many meeters and greeters can spend an hour or more driving around in circles until the passenger arrives. This greatly adds to the congestion, which on Friday and Sunday afternoons can bring the airport road system almost to a standstill. How much better for the driver to wait in the Cell Phone lot, tuning through the radio spectrum to listen in to the staggering diversity of New York, until you have picked up your bag. By the time you have cleared customs and emerged to another hot New York summer’s evening, your contact should be cruising into view.
The new 70-space lot may not seem, er, a lot in the context of the 100,000 passengers who use Kennedy airport on a busy day, but it is at least a step in the right direction.
The flight may be fantastic, but if the local infrastructure lets you down then all the stress-free inflight pampering could be in vain. US airports are among the worst offenders, mainly because many of them were designed for an age when traffic was much lighter, and with possibilities for rapid-transit systems designed out. Atlanta Hartsfield - busiest airport on the planet - and its close rival, Chicago O'Hare, are honourable exceptions. But even airports with their own rail or subway links often need a change of vehicle en route to the city: Kennedy, Newark, Boston and Dallas-Fort Worth all suffer from this complaint.
Business travellers are pre-disposed to high-quality rail links - witness the success of the Heathrow Express and just about every big airport in Germany - but waiting for a bus to take you to a station where you can wait for a train is not exactly seamless travel.
Brand-new airports, of course, can have high-speed links designed in from day one - yet Bangkok’s shiny 21st-century airport actually takes a retrograde step. At least the old Don Muang airport had a main-line station adjacent; the SkyTrain in the Thai capital currently stretches three-quarters of the way to airport, then stops at the quaintly named On Nut station.
Hong Kong, Oslo and the new Heathrow Terminal 5 are examples of excellence in surface links, with fast and frequent trains to the city centre and elsewhere. But while they remain the exception, business travellers will continue to switch from two wings to four wheels - and a lot more lots like JFK’s Cell Phone Lot are in order.