Stefano and Marco, two extremely buff Texans, are standing on the pool deck atop the brand-new TWA Hotel, grinning uncontrollably. Located right next to JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK airport, the hotel is the result of a $265 million renovation of architect Eero Saarinen’s futuristic 1960s landmark, the TWA Flight Center. But the guys aren’t here for the period-perfect hotel rooms or to eat at its swanky restaurant. Despite the 90-degree weather, they aren’t even paying attention to the pool. “This is the place to be if you love planes,” says a giddy Stefano, 28. “I’m an avgeek,” as they call themselves. “Aviation is my thing, my niche, my kink, if you want to put it that way. I’m the happiest person today.”
“I’m telling people I came in for World Pride, but it’s really for this,” he adds, lowering his voice. “Sorry, a Kenya Dreamliner is backing up. This is a 787, which is their shorter variant. We need to see this.”
The preopening hype around the TWA Hotel was feverish, pitching it as a haute couture destination in its own right, despite the fact that said destination was the airport. Karlie Kloss Instagrammed about it, and Louis Vuitton debuted its cruise collection there in early May, after premiering past collections on a Japanese mountaintop and in a tiny French village. Almost every outlet that covers the city — including this magazine — wondered if the hotel could make Kennedy airport fashionable. But in the month since its opening, the hotel has been plagued by middling-to-bad reviews and a sort of low-key sense of chaos, with guests complaining about poor customer service, random power outages, and errant fire alarms. “Disturbingly abysmal,” wrote one reviewer on TripAdvisor. “Truly the twilight zone from 1962. You are on your own, and it’ll cost you,” wrote another ominously.
In the hotel’s indoor common areas on the last Friday in June, the mood is bleary and hushed — besides the glamorous trappings, it is indistinguishable from the existential malaise of an airport. In the aptly named Sunken Lounge, a handful of exhausted travelers on layover stare blurrily at their laptops, ignoring one another. On the eighth-floor pool deck, I’m greeted by the loud hum and sharp scent of airplanes taking off directly in front of me. The pool, billed as infinite, is the length of approximately six coffins and the width of two. Everyone must place their belongings in see-through bags, and there are clearly not enough chairs to support the burgeoning population.
Even so, the energy up here is different — harmonic, joyful. For the poolgoers at the TWA Hotel, the airport is not a grim means to an end, and the hotel is not a chic destination that just happens to be next to the airport. For them, the airport is the point. The Caesar salad costs $16, and conversations are regularly extinguished by the deafening sounds of jet engines, but who cares? The spot overlooks Runway 4 Left–22 Right, one of the biggest at JFK, and you can spend an entire afternoon having your sunglasses blown off your face by the mammoth aircraft taking off just a few hundred feet away, if that’s your thing.
Beet-red white men in shorts cluster near the edge of the deck, photographing the massive jetliners. Many work in aviation or are retired from the industry; at least three of them get choked up talking about their feelings for planes. They’ve arrived in pairs or with their wives — at least one of whom has a distinct fear of planes — who are here to be supportive. Jack, who worked for TWA for 12 years, starts crying the minute I ask him what he’s doing at the pool. “I’m having a funny reaction,” he says, his voice wavering. “I’ve driven out of the airport so many times, and this was dead space. But when I saw this today, I teared up. When I got off the elevator, I said, ‘JP-4 jet fuel!’ I could smell it instantly.”
At the bar, I meet Gil and Dave, two “big plane guys” from D.C. who used to work for the FAA. “An airport is a portal to the rest of the world,” says Gil, who becomes increasingly poetic as he opens up. “A lot of the airports now are like a big shopping mall, but this is different. You’re not just going somewhere to get to somewhere else.” Gil, who headed here after one of his avgeek friends described the place as “heaven,” tells me he plane-spots regularly. “When I graduated from college, I bought a hotel room at Hartsfield-Jackson with my buddy, and we took radios and ordered pizzas and sat there for two days watching planes.”
Spencer, another former TWA employee and “one of the first” avgeeks, also gets teary talking about the “floodgates of memory” that the hotel has opened for him. He says he rates the hotel a “nine out of five” for its attention to period detail. He then spends eight minutes explaining to me the difference between a “pilot” and an “aviator,” the primary factor being a sense of artistry and an appreciation for the miracle of flight. “I don’t know if I can tell you how I know the difference,” he says. “I can just tell by talking to someone.”
Now that I’ve been here for a few hours, the guests have begun to accept me into their fragile ecosystem. Several swim by to surreptitiously express their discontent with the pool’s size. Chris, who “works in hotels,” points at the lounge chairs. “Did you know there are only 14 of them?” he whispers. “I counted for you.”
But the complaints aren’t enough to deter those united by their fascination with flight. Over the course of four hours, I hear dozens of variations on the theme of “I can’t believe this gigantic thing makes it into the air.” Joanna tells me she’s visiting the hotel with her son, who’s on the spectrum and is only soothed by pools and planes. One man wants to make sure I understand how much each plane weighs. “I’m talking tons,” he reiterates.
“Think about it.”
Laurie, an older woman who’s been sitting in the corner of the pool for several hours, tells me she worked for Delta back in the ’70s and now she’s here because “I’ve always been fascinated with travel. I love to make up stories: ‘Where are they going? What will they do when they get there?’ ”
I ask her where she thinks a Singapore Airlines flight is going, and she studies me. “Probably to Singapore,” she says.
I dry off next to a group of older women from Long Island in large sun hats, who are here celebrating a retirement. “We’re friends from before the original TWA opened!” says Betty, the retiree, whose energy could power several jetliners. “We were going to stay at the hotel overnight, but we didn’t, because of the reviews,” her friend Carol says conspiratorially.
Carol’s friend, also named Carol, looks directly into my eyes. “I’m here in spite of my ex-husband, because he used to work for TWA,” she says. “He was just ground services.”
Before heading downstairs, I hop back in the pool to gird myself for the 90-minute drive home. I strike up a conversation with Jeff, a middle-aged man in bright-blue sunglasses who’s been in the pool for most of the day. Jeff has the same dreamy tone as Betty and Spencer and Jack and Laurie and Gil and Dave. JFK may be a Lynchian nightmare for almost all of us, but for just enough people to fit on one tiny rooftop, it’s the most heavenly place in the world. “I love planes,” says Jeff, sipping his cocktail. “I flew to Lima for a weekend just for the plane ride. I’m getting ready for an 11-hour flight right now, and I can’t wait. I just really love being completely sealed off from the rest of the world.”
*This article appears in the July 8, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!