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Dingy LaGuardia Airport, often ranked by fliers as nation's worst, undergoing $3.6B makeover

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Dark, dingy, cramped and sad. These are some of the ways travellers describe LaGuardia Airport, a bustling hub often ranked in customer satisfaction surveys as the worst in America.

"It does not represent what people think of when they think of New York and Broadway shows and glamour. It's not very pretty," said Layla House, a sales manager for a medical supply company who travels from her home in Bullard, Texas, to New York at least six times a year.

That's about to change.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently announced the state is taking control of an ambitious $3.6 billion construction project that envisions an entirely new central terminal at LaGuardia, with vast open spaces, restaurants, shopping plazas, new parking garages, free Wi-Fi and other amenities now common in other airports. Cuomo also wants to develop a plan to upgrade cargo operations at nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport.

"We are going to redevelop those airports the way they should have been redeveloped many, many years ago," Cuomo said in his annual State of the State address.

Cuomo, who is running for re-election and has been mentioned as a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2016, said he had become frustrated that talk of such renovations has been going on since the 1990s with little progress.

He wants to jump-start construction just as he has done with a $3.9 billion project to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, north of New York City, which also had been stalled for years.

LaGuardia, along the Flushing and Bowery bays in northern Queens, is the closest of the New York area's three major air hubs to midtown Manhattan, just 8 miles, and it handled a record 27 million passengers last year.

Often the first building they see is the sprawling, boomerang-shaped Central Terminal, which opened just in time to receive visitors to the 1964 World's Fair. Many passengers say it is like stepping back in time.

They immediately encounter low ceilings and dimly lit, narrow hallways. Check-in kiosks are arrayed haphazardly in rows just inside the entrances, where bright green neon lights blare "Welcome to LaGuardia Airport." On the west side of the terminal sits a modest food court featuring a hamburger counter, a pizzeria and a Dunkin' Donuts.

"It's probably the worst of all the terminals I go in and out of," said Thomas Smith, a frequent-flying energy company executive from Chicago who has seen buckets on the floor under leaky ceilings and other signs of decay. "There's no real food service other than small snack shops. The gate areas are old."

Most passengers have to drag their carry-on bags down a flight of stairs to get from their gates to baggage claim because only one concourse has an escalator. Others have complained that neither Kennedy nor LaGuardia provides free Wi-Fi, something that has been industry standard for years.

Built to accommodate 8 million passengers a year, the central terminal now handles 12.5 million. Cuomo envisions a new terminal that could handle as many as 17.5 million passengers by 2030. LaGuardia's three other terminals — which include the Art Deco-style Marine Air Terminal, where seaplanes landed in the 1940s — are not slated for renovation.

"When you see the difference between these airports and some of these other countries' (airports), it's shameful," said George Hobica, who runs the website Airfarewatchdog.com. He noted that after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, airports had to install security equipment for luggage and passenger screening.

"The TSA equipment barely fits at LaGuardia," Hobica said. "LaGuardia is just functionally disjointed."

In 2012, Travel and Leisure magazine named LaGuardia the nation's worst airport, saying it had the "dubious honour of ranking the worst for the check-in and security process, the worst for baggage handling, the worst when it comes to providing Wi-Fi, the worst at staff communication, and the worst design and cleanliness."

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, concedes the facility is in need of an overhaul and had already begun awarding contracts for preliminary work at LaGuardia. A spokesman said it welcomes the state's involvement to expedite the project.

Four companies have been asked to submit proposals for the Central Terminal Building project by April 15, and construction is expected to begin by the end of the year. The tricky part will come when construction is fully underway while the airport continues to serve millions.

"Everybody acknowledges that this is a complex undertaking but one that is absolutely necessary," said Stephen Sigmund, executive director of the Global Gateway Alliance, which has advocated for improvements at New York's airports.

"It's going to be a nightmare," added Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst. "This is going to be the equivalent of General Motors trying to change one of its models while the assembly line is still running. ... But this is the way airports get redeveloped. Every airline understands this."

Darius Douglass, a New York writer waiting for a flight at LaGuardia, said the workers throughout the airport try to be friendly and helpful. "But it's an old airport. It just needs to be refurbished. It was good in its heyday, but nothing has been done."

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