Tech

The JFK AirTrain Should Be Free For Everyone

Most people who ride the AirTrain do so for free. Why do some have to pay $8 per ride?
JFK Airtrain
VW Pics / Contributor via Getty
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
Moveable explores the future of transportation, infrastructure, energy, and cities.

With the holiday travel season more or less returning to pre-pandemic levels, millions of New Yorkers and tourists are once again engaging in a time-honored tradition: figuring out the least bad way to get to JFK.

New York City is a big place with a transit system that requires PhD levels of study to master, so there is no simple way to describe the JFK calculus that applies to the whole city. But if you want to get to JFK by public transit, you have to take the AirTrain either from the end of a subway line or the Long Island Rail Road. (Yes, I know there are local buses that go to the airport. Like most everyone else, I’m going to ignore them.) 

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The AirTrain is a separate driverless train that, like nearly all U.S. airport trains, is needlessly complicated and vestigial to the city’s transit system thanks to an arcane bureaucratic rule that no longer exists. But AirTrain does exist, and it is operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) which also owns and operates the region’s airports. The AirTrain takes about seven minutes and costs $8 per ride. If you are traveling with anyone other than yourself, the AirTrain fare alone makes taking an Uber or cab not only the most convenient option, but on par economically as well. A family of four getting to JFK via the subway and AirTrain will spend $43. A cab from Manhattan costs a flat $52 plus taxes and tip, is usually faster, and involves no luggage hauling up subway stairs. But a traveling couple could reasonably compare $20-plus in transit costs—almost all of which is the AirTrain—with the cab fare and conclude public transit isn’t worth the hassle even though it is generally more predictable than Manhattan and Queens traffic. The Long Island Rail Road is faster from midtown to the AirTrain and thanks to the recent expansion of the City Ticket costs just $5, but it is a less-advertised option and requires getting to and dealing with Penn Station.

As a result, public transit rarely comes out as the best or most attractive option. In 2019, before the pandemic, about 14 percent of JFK’s travelers took the AirTrain to the airport, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s (PANYNJ) annual report. In December 2019, it was 12 percent. (Almost all airport workers drive to work where they can park cheaply and easily.)

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However, there is one easy, relatively cheap, and sensible step the Port Authority could take to make the AirTrain more popular. It could make the AirTrain free.

Fare-free transit is all the rage these days. Washington, D.C. just voted to make its buses fare-free, Kansas City has a zero fare transit program, and Boston is experimenting with three fare-free bus routes, to name just a few examples of fare-free initiatives happening around the country. There are many reasons to make transit fare-free, including but not limited to encouraging higher ridership and subsidizing a municipal service largely used by low income people. Of course, transit does not actually become free in those places, it just shifts the entire cost to the general tax roll rather than having riders pay a small portion of it.

The dynamic of the AirTrain is different, in that it is not a mass transit system but rather a link to a specific place that only allows people who spent hundreds of dollars on a ticket inside. And that fact has long been recognized by the Port Authority in the AirTrain’s fare structure. Currently, most people who ride the AirTrain do so for free. In 2019, 12.2 million trips began and ended within the free zone, according to the Port Authority’s airport traffic statistics, which encompasses all the airport terminals and the rental car depot. Compare that to 8.7 million riders who used one of the paid stops that connect to public transit. In other words, more people ride the AirTrain for free every year than people who pay. It is difficult to justify why most people get to use the AirTrain for free but some do not. 

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Moreover, like local buses, eliminating the fare payment process for the AirTrain on its own has benefits in speeding up service. Right now, the subway is transitioning to a new fare payment method called OMNY which uses contactless payments like cell phones, smartwatches, and a new transit card. It works well and the MetroCard is being phased out. Meanwhile, the AirTrain still only takes MetroCard. There is currently no reliable timetable on when that transition will take place due to the complications of coordinating the change between the transit authority, which collects the fares at the JFK AirTrain, and the Port Authority, which owns and operates the AirTrain itself. It is the bureaucratic equivalent of the collision of two black holes. In the meantime, riders have to go to special machines at the AirTrain station to buy a MetroCard (which increases the cost by $1) for which there are always lines because fewer and fewer people have MetroCards. The sensible solution is to eliminate the fare and the accompanying delay and expense of sorting this mess out.

Also like local bus services, eliminating the AirTrain fare doesn’t actually change the big picture about who is paying for what. Local bus services around the country are paid for almost entirely by general tax revenues. Fares make up a small—and increasingly dwindling—proportion of transit agency budgets, because transit is increasingly viewed as an essential urban service and not just another player in a competitive marketplace. 

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Similarly, and as has been the case with the majority of AirTrain users who have been riding it for free, JFK passengers are already paying for the AirTrain directly and indirectly through various taxes and fees on their airline tickets or costs that get paid by the airlines and passed on via higher fares. For example, the Passenger Facility Charge, or PFC, is a $4.50 surcharge to every airplane ticket to or from JFK that pays for airport improvements. In 2019, the Port Authority received $1.2 billion from “aviation fees” for its airports, a category that includes AirTrain fares, PFCs, and other fees. The Port Authority doesn’t say how much revenue comes specifically from the AirTrain, but it says 8.7 million passengers paid to use it in 2019 when the fare was $7.75, for an annual revenue of about $67 million. In other words, by making the AirTrain fare-free, the Port Authority would be sacrificing only about five percent of its aviation fees per year in order to give travelers a more convenient airport experience, which is the entire point of the PFCs to begin with.

This wouldn’t simply be an act of charity on the Port Authority’s part. It could be a huge improvement to everyone’s airport experience, including those who don’t use AirTrain. Currently, each JFK terminal’s pick-up and drop-off zones are chaotic free-for-alls utterly failing to cope with the rise in for-hire vehicles. Pick-up zones are particularly bad. Ubers frequently cut across multiple lanes in one swoop to try and extricate themselves from the proceedings only to get trapped by other oncoming Ubers and end up blocking multiple lanes. Hapless traffic managers assigned to make sense of the chaos have long since given up and are usually seen standing in the middle of the road, ironically only adding to the farcical proceedings. Uber wait times typically start out in the 5-10 minute range but inevitably become 10-20 at minimum as the oncoming car gets stuck in this mess. 

A fare-free AirTrain would help alleviate this problem by shifting more trips to public transit—particularly during peak hour times when traffic is the worst and trains run the most frequently—reducing congestion at the terminals, and making pick-ups and drop-offs easier for people who don’t have the option of arriving via the subway or LIRR. While the terminal designs are definitely part of the problem, LaGuardia’s new terminals with specific for-hire vehicle pickup areas aren’t doing that much better, likely because there is a fundamental conflict of geometry in trying to have hundreds of people getting picked up by hundreds of cars in the same place at the same time. Speaking of LaGuardia, former governor Andrew Cuomo spent the better part of six years trying to force through an AirTrain project there no one wanted and made no sense and by all accounts would have eventually been built had its only supporter not been ousted from office for alleged sexual harassment. Afterwards, the transit authority recognized it could do one easy thing to make getting to LaGuardia easier and made the express bus to the airport free.

Eliminating the fare wouldn’t solve all of the AirTrain’s problems. While making it free was a nice gesture, LaGuardia’s bus service could desperately use bus-only lanes so it isn’t subject to the same traffic as taxis and Ubers. Also like local buses, the Port Authority has steadily reduced the frequency trains arrive and depart since it opened in 2005. It is not uncommon for a traveler these days to wait 15 minutes or longer for an AirTrain in the middle of a weekday, a perplexing state of affairs given the AirTrain is driverless and the Port Authority has plenty of actual trains to run. Echoing the debate that is occurring among pro-transit types over fare-free buses, some believe nixing the fare is a capitulation to running a crappy but cheap (or free) service rather than improving a critical one. 

Making the AirTrain free would not have any grand argument about improving transit equity or other buzzwords hovering around the conversation of fare-free transit. It is something much more humble than that, a sensible idea to make a bad airport suck slightly less to get to.