Air apparent: Pan Am at JFK

Britain's airport heritage has been sadly neglected, says Chris Beanland, but in New York mid-century gems have been rescued for future generations

Looking at the bland state of some British airports – especially the ones where budget airlines rule the roost – it seems almost unthinkable that flying used to be the most dramatic and futuristic way to travel. That glamour was expressed in the mid-century buildings to which planes taxied. The airport terminal was a place of wonder. The difficult question we face now is whether to preserve these ageing icons of aviation, or pave over them to build the gleaming glass terminals that today's airlines and their passengers clamour for.

No one turned out to bid farewell to the Queens and Europa Buildings at Heathrow, despite them being awarded a London Architecture Award by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1955. The airport's original terminal complex was demolished in 2009 after 54 years of service – and plenty of limelight: Terence Rattigan's 1963 film The VIPs was set here and starred Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Orson Welles. On top of the rubble, a huge new Terminal 5-style hub for the Star Alliance is rising.

"For me, airports should be utterly modern and without nostalgia. The point of planes and terminals is that they should be contemporary," muses Alain de Botton. The philosopher wrote A Week At The Airport – The Heathrow Diary, and is unabashed: "To feel nostalgic about an airport is like feeling nostalgic about old milk. Talk of 'the glamour of yesteryear' is defeatist and depressing. We need to discover ways of being glamorous now. So let's destroy the old and build the new."

But the old still dazzles: Croydon Airport's muscular clock tower, Birmingham's original Elmdon terminal and the greatest of them all – Liverpool. This art-deco monster, which is now a Crowne Plaza Hotel, is the Tempelhof of Merseyside – a curving brick behemoth crowned with what looks like a lighthouse.

Now Gatwick's original Beehive building appears under threat if a second runway were to be built at the Sussex airport. The Beehive opened in 1936 – so far ahead of its time that the airport around it wasn't even ready to handle planes to Paris. With its distinctive circular shape, it was recognised with Grade II* listing. But if the Government baulks at an expanded Heathrow or a Thames Estuary airport, its days could be numbered.

LaGuardia's Marine Air Terminal was New York's Beehive. A drum structure squatting on the shores of Bowery Bay – Boeing 314 flying boats used to bob up and unload their human cargo here. The 74-year-old grande dame is still used for shuttle flights to Washington DC.

Across Long Island at John F Kennedy, the city's main airport, it's a tale of two terminals. Eero Saarinen's heart-stopping Trans World Flight Center is ready to re-open after a painstaking $20m time-machine transformation. The restoration has made this swoop-roofed marvel in the so-called "googie" style look like it's 1962 all over again. But the omens for the Pan Am Worldport are not as propitious: it's due to be demolished by 2015.

The sweeping concrete lines of the former TWA hub have been saved, "due to its landmark status and significant potential for adaptive reuse", according to JFK's Susan Baer. Inside, Saarinen's use of space is mesmerising; signs point to the Lisbon Lounge bar, where Negronis will soon be enjoyed once more by JetBlue passengers. But the airport hasn't taken the historic terminal belonging to TWA's old rivals Pan Am to their hearts in the same way. "The obsolete Worldport does not have landmark status or a viable adaptive reuse," states Baer bluntly.

JFK and Delta want to bulldoze the 1960 Worldport and shift operations. But a grass-roots movement is set on saving the quirky building crowned by an unusual flying-saucer roof.

"The Port Authority and Delta's reasons for destroying the Worldport are laughable," argues Kal Savi, the campaign's leader. "Even in its dilapidated state, I'm always in awe as I stand under that amazing roof, remembering how important this site is. It's a mid-20th-century Ellis Island." Savi's mother worked for Pan Am and he fell for the building as a child. "I was 10 when I took my first trip on a Pan Am 747 from JFK to Heathrow in 1971. I remember vividly departing the Worldport from Gate 3."

JFK is unique because each airline built their own terminal. Some have already bitten the dust, such as IM Pei's National Airlines Sundrome in 2010. Elsewhere in the US, campaigning has saved other modernist airport architecture: Building One at Newark Airport, Chicago O'Hare's Rotunda, and the 1962 Theme Building in the centre of LAX's sprawling forecourt.

"The Worldport means a lot to me. I know my father was very proud of it," says Leslie Turano Taylor, daughter of the building's architect Emanuel Turano. But it's the millions of tiny human dramas – or comedies – played out that make these historic hubs meaningful. "My fondest memory is a flight to Italy from the terminal in 1980. Dad hadn't been there since he designed it. He went in search of the loo and almost missed the flight because he couldn't remember where he'd put it."