Review: TWA Hotel at JFK

Opened in 1962 at the peak of the jet age, the Trans World Airlines Flight Center at New York City’s JFK Airport is the epitome of 1960’s design aesthetic. Designed by Eero Saarinen, it housed TWA’s operations at the airport from its opening until TWA was purchased by American Airlines in 2001 when it shuttered its doors along with the airline. The building has since been surrounded by JetBlue’s new terminal, and has been sitting empty ever since. Until now.

The TWA Hotel opened in May 2019, designed to be a step back in time for hotel guests. Branded from tip to toe with TWA logos and bringing back the classic red carpets, the hotel aims to make guests feel like they’re back in the glamour days of air travel.

Getting There

The hotel is located smack dab in the middle of the JFK terminal complex. You’d think it would be easy to get there, and in some cases it may be. For others it might be more of a hassle than hotels further away.

For those arriving by car, there is easy to follow signage as well as multiple parking options: very convenient valet parking or the public parking garage between terminals 4 and 5.

If you’re flying into or out of the JetBlue Terminal 5, then things are also relatively easy. Go down to the arrivals level and on the far side of the terminal is this red dressed elevator.

Walk in, press the button, and head up to the tunnels.

These are the original white walled and red carpeted tunnels that brought passengers from the TWA Flight Center to the flight line back when the building opened. These days, it brings hotel guests to the main building, and also connects to the two new wings of hotel rooms.

Here’s the problem: this is pretty much the only way to get there if you’re not driving. For passengers flying in or out of other terminals, you’ll need to take the AirTrain to Terminal 5, then walk down to the arrivals area, then find the elevator and walk some more. It’s a hike, and not very convenient.

In an ideal world, there would be a hotel shuttle you’d be able to call that would pick you up from your terminal and bring you to the hotel. Considering how much they spent on other areas of the operation it feels like this would be a simple fix, but it’s not something they do today.

Checking In

The TWA Hotel has re-purposed the old flight check in desks for the hotel reception. It’s super cool from an AvGeek perspective and I appreciate the design, but for those arriving from the JetBlue terminal it means you need to trek all the way through the hotel and down the stairs (luggage in hand) to get there.

At check in, there were only two people on staff, which is actually fine. The check in process is completely automated, using iPads to register guests, swipe your credit card, and even issue RFID room keys. The process was very intuitive and the touch screen interface made it easy to understand. I actually appreciated this touch and wish more hotels would jump on this bandwagon.

Check in starts at 4 PM, but when we arrived around 2 PM our room was already available. But if it hadn’t been, the staff at the front desk would have been happy to hold the luggage while we went for a drink or to explore.

In The Room

We booked ourselves into a room with a runway view, and it didn’t disappoint. Our 6th floor room had a great view and windows so thick that I (true story) actually bonked my head into the window trying to look out because I didn’t realize how thick they were. Thanks to those windows, the hotel room is pretty much as quiet as any other hotel I’ve ever stayed in near an airport.

The bed is big and comfy, the TV is on a tilting stand that swings out if needed, and there’s two nice chairs that are great for getting some work done or just relaxing.

There’s some really nice touches in here. Things like the rotary phone that actually works, or the mini bar that looks classic and inviting. Aesthetically, it’s beautiful, consistent, and generally on point.

A quick note about the bar: it’s not included in the price. You can see the prices on their website here and they definitely are not cheap, but then again if you look at the prices on their cocktails at the Sunken Lounge, rooftop bar, or Connie, it actually starts to make sense. In a sense, you’re on their island, unless you raided the duty free before arriving you’re at their mercy. Plus, Hudson Baby Bourbon is always delicious and worth the price.

But there’s also some things that are missing. There’s no ironing board — instead there’s just a steamer wand. There’s also no closet, instead there are some pegs on the wall. But really it’s only minor niggles, nothing major. Some people have commented on a lack of shower curtains, but they’re actually not an issue and it seems like the showers are designed that way.

As for the biggest attraction: the view is amazing. Watching the airplanes take off and land right from your own bed is fantastic. And totally worth the price of admission.

Drinks and Lounge

While the view is the biggest attraction there are three other elements of note: the rooftop pool, the Sunken Lounge, and the Connie.

I’ll just make a quick note here about reservations. All of these areas either require reservations or have them available. A reservation is definitely good to have, but at least during our stay, there seemed to be a good bit of extra capacity right now for hotel guests and walk-ups. I get the feeling that they are purposefully trying to minimize the number of people in these areas as they continue to get their legs under them for these first weeks and we might see some increased availability later in the year. But for now, just be aware that if you don’t get a reservation there’s still hope.

Up top is the rooftop pool and bar. Reservations are required for non hotel guests, but if you’ve got your red room key then you can wander up and check it out. The pool itself seems to have been recently opened, with other reviews as late as last week noting that it was still under construction. When we stayed there, the pool was full and being enjoyed by hotel guests.

The pool itself is cool, emblazoned with a big TWA logo and offering stunning views of the runways for plane spotters. There are also lounge chairs and regular tables for people to sit and enjoy the sun. All accompanied by a red and white TWA logo towel.

Off to the side is the rooftop bar. There’s some pretty lighting and a good awning to keep the sun off you for those who would prefer to stay a little cooler. The bar features some nice bar height seating and a great view of the runway and apron, and there were more than a few people with their telephoto lenses snapping pictures of the pretty metal birds.

There’s no doubt that this is one of the best locations in all of JFK for planespotting, and the views are fantastic. But the days we were there it was a little too windy to really be comfortable or relaxing. Naturally weather will be a big factor in a space like this, so your mileage may vary.

One thing to note that was especially frustrating is that while there are three elevators in this wing of the hotel, only two of them actually go all the way up to the pool. The third stops one floor short. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but there’s no way to specify which elevator you want — one button calls all three. For my wife and I, when we called the elevator from the sixth floor, the wrong one appeared and refused to go away no matter what tricks we tried. Eventually we gave up, took the wrong elevator as far as it would go, and walked up the stairs the rest of the way.

Back downstairs in the main lobby is the Sunken Lounge, one of the original cocktail lounges from when the TWA Flight Center was still an operational airport terminal. Again, while reservations were available we were able to slide in during the busiest time of the day without one. Once in the lounge, your drinks are served to you by waitresses dressed in uniforms inspired by period appropriate TWA uniforms.

While the view might not be as spectacular as the rooftop bar, there’s still an airplane out the window you can admire: the Lockheed Constellation that the TWA Hotel has lovingly restored and turned into a cocktail lounge of its own (more on that in a bit). The gleaming white airplane with red accents is a great decoration outside the window to take your mind off the fact that just beyond the small retaining wall is the traffic lanes serving Terminal 5.

Looking at the menu, I appreciate that they went with some of the more classic cocktails as well as some simply inspired by those old recipes. But one thing that I noticed was that the cocktail menu doesn’t change between the different bar locations. The same menu is available at all three bars, the only difference being the availability of some other spirits in the larger Sunken Lounge bar.

Without a doubt one of the biggest draws is the Connie — a Lockheed Constellation L1649A model Starliner. The Constellation line of aircraft was originally commissioned from Lockheed by TWA’s owner Howard Hughes in 1939 and this Starliner is the final variant of the aircraft to debut.

The aircraft, tail number N8083H, was originally slated for delivery to an airline in Venezuela it was re-painted and delivered instead to TWA as the first owner in 1958 entering service that May. It briefly flew for Alaska Airlines in the 1960s and was converted to a fuel oil carrier in 1968 before finally being retired from service in 1972. In 1978, after sitting dormant for years and accruing significant parking fees, it was repossessed and sold for $150 and the new owner in 1983 began using it to ferry marijuana into the United States and dropping the cargo out of the aircraft at low altitude to waiting smugglers before abandoning it in South America.

Since then, it had been stripped for spare parts used to restore other flying Lockheed Constellations, but in 2018 with the announcement of the new TWA Hotel it was restored to its original colors and installed as a cocktail lounge at the old TWA Terminal.

These days the interior of the aircraft has been restored, but instead of going with a period appropriate design, the designers opted to use inspiration from the white walled and red carpeted tunnels from the terminal. The interior is clean and beautiful with a single ring of plexiglass covered cutaway showing the interior skin of the aircraft.

There are some airline like seats available, but there are also a number of red plushy banquettes to increase the seating capacity. I will note that only the exit row seats have a table available, every other airline seat pair doesn’t have a place for you to rest your drinks.

My biggest complaint with the Connie experience is that it’s a hike to get there. From the Sunken Lounge you can see the airplane out the big picture windows, but to actually get there you need to go around the long way past the tubes and out a nondescript side door. From there you duck back under the tubes outside (which are very low and easy to hit your head on) and then all the way back across in front of those same windows. I would have expected either a more convenient door or at least some better signage around this route.

Dining and Food

There are two options for food at the hotel: the food truck stands and the Paris Cafe.

Down at the front of the hotel, on the opposite side as the check in desks, is a section of desks where local food trucks and to-go restaurants have set up shop and provide quick food for the hotel guests. The food that’s available isn’t necessarily the most substantial stuff, but in a pinch and for those who have a hankering for empanadas it might work.

Directly upstairs above these is the Paris Cafe, open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner — a proper sit-down restaurant helmed by a Michelin star chef.

The restaurant looks adorable, and is very period appropriate. The seats look like they’re right out of the 1960’s, and despite their appearance they are very comfortable.

My wife and I ate here for lunch and dinner, and the (relatively light) menu was the exact same both times. I’m not complaining much, since it was delicious, but just be aware when booking that you’re not going to get a different choice with different meals.

The restaurant does offer reservations, and hotel guests apparently have some tables reserved for them, but once again the dining room was practically empty despite spending a good chunk of time over the past week talking with the (extremely nice and helpful) hotel staff to try and get a reservation at the apparently booked Saturday night seating. Once again, it seems like the hotel is deliberately under-booking, almost like a soft opening.

That concept was reinforced when we were asked to wait a solid 45 minutes to be seated for our noon lunch reservation. And considering the restaurant opens at noon and we were the first on the list, that can only mean that they were having a tough time staffing up and swapping over from breakfast.

This is the problem, though: there’s not really another option. If the restaurant is full and the food trucks aren’t to your liking, you’re out of luck. While the location is amazing for plane spotting and getting from hotel room to gate in Terminal 5 in about 20 minutes flat it also means that your nearest non-hotel dining options are either a significant drive or on the other side of a TSA security checkpoint. One family we saw solved this problem by ordering delivery Chinese food and eating it in the sunken lounge. Honestly I was more impressed with their ingenuity than anything else, but nothing like a Postmates delivery to ruin the 1960s illusion!

Conclusion

This hotel has a lot going for it. The branding and the styling is perfect, and the historical aspects are on point. The room design is spot on for what you would expect and all the little touches make it a truly enjoyable experience. But there were still some gaps, from the annoying inability to specify a rooftop bound elevator to the static menu and lack of reserveable seats at the restaurant.

The most interesting thing about the hotel to me isn’t the hotel itself but the guests that were present. I lost count of how many former air crew members were in the lounges with us, some sporting their uniform hats from their time in the airline and others just sitting around telling old war stories. It really is a trip back in time to walk through those doors, and it seemed like the former flight attendants and other crew truly enjoyed the trip down memory lane, regardless of how recently they left the industry or the airline they had worked for.

The parts of the hotel that matter the most are done correctly. The niggles are all fixable issues, and I trust that they will be solved in time. In my opinion this is a hotel that any self respecting aviation nerd needs to stay in at least once in their life.

Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is an instrument rated private pilot (ASEL), writer, and general techy nerd living in Austin, Texas.

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