By Jason Diamond / May 20, 2019

Review: The TWA Hotel Won’t Send You Back to the Glory Days of Air Travel

The good and bad of turning the midcentury JFK landmark into an airport hotel

(Courtesy TWA Hotel)
(Courtesy TWA Hotel)

I’m not old enough to have experienced the golden age of air travel. I can’t recall a time when getting on a plane was a pleasant or sometimes downright elegant experience that people believed was only going to get better.

The entire notion of air travel is stressful. From getting to the airport to waiting to see if your luggage will show up when you land, every step in the journey is needlessly complex and painful — made worse by the fact that I’ve paid a lot to be so disappointed. So why would I want to recreate that feeling before I even step into the terminal?

That’s what I was wondering when I got to the TWA Hotel at JFK this Friday night at 5 p.m. While I was impressed with the wondrous Eero Saarinen landmark, the stark check-in counter triggered the horrors of a hundred delayed flights come back to haunt me. I’d been waiting to see the reopened “hotel of the future,” called so by a New York governor who can’t figure out how to modernize the subways, another disheartening form of travel.

At its heart, the TWA Hotel still feels like what it was originally built to be: a terminal. You walk up to the check-in and staff greets you. The black rubber bag carousel is still behind them.

For me, the whole experience missed the mark and exemplifies the air-travel service mindset, which is generally derided and boils down to the company knowing you’ll pay anything to get where you need to be — except I don’t need the TWA Hotel the same way I need United or Virgin (to do my job, see my family, go on vacation, etc.), so I’m less likely to forgive the little indignities.

Can I get work done there?

Because it’s connected by a walkway to JFK’s Terminal 5, the TWA Hotel and terminal is well-positioned for people with time to kill before their flights. And considering the lack of quality places to do that in the airport, it’s definitely welcomed and a far superior place to have a few drinks than just about anywhere in JFK.

The thing to remember here is that airport hotels live and die by their ability to serve the needs of business travelers. They need to create an elevated and painless experience for guests, and major hospitality chains have invested in innovating to optimize that customer experience. The TWA Hotel doesn’t appear to have that customer experience mindset, resting instead on aesthetic. The new terminal and its public spaces haven’t been updated to accommodate the modern traveler and their gadgets. My room, the executive king suite, lacked key functional features like working bedside lamps and power sources. Just finding an outlet at the desk to plug my laptop charger into was a challenge. The wifi was spotty. There are no USB outlets to be found. If I am a guest, especially if I am a business traveler, and I cannot complete mission-critical tasks during my stay, that stay will probably be my last.

How’s the room?

I had to have been the first or second person staying in my room, but I was made to wait an hour (remember, I got there at 5:00) to get into the room, and when I finally got there, the desk was covered in potato chip crumbs and somebody before me had forgotten to flush the toilet. I’m not the only person that experienced this, I found out.

But the bed was very comfortable and I was impressed by the linens. I liked the fluffy white towels and the cheeky TWA bath mat, but the bathroom was curiously low on amenities, such as hand lotion or (as my wife noted) a shower cap. There was also no toilet-paper holder! Just a lone roll of toilet paper stacked on the vanity.

I’ll also say that in this day and age of hotels being highly selective of the brands they partner with for mini-bar and snack selections, I was really surprised to find that most of the options presented to me in my room were basically junky things I could get at any local bodega. The in-room Martini bar, however, is a great touch.

So the snacks aren’t great, but how’s the restaurant?

I wish I had an answer to that, but I don’t. Despite trying weeks before my stay, I was unable to snag a reservation at the Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, the only sit-down eatery in the hotel. After early reports that the food wasn’t … great, I had pinned my hopes on at least eating something at the dining hall, which offered street food favorites like Halal Guys, but they didn’t seem to be totally up and running during my stay. So, without many options, I decided to test my luck and see if I could sit down at one of the many open tables (by many, I mean basically the entire place). I joined a line of other hungry hopefuls and waited.

None of us got a table. The flustered manager told each of us he was waiting for parties to arrive. At my count, and this was getting close to 9:00, I saw about 20 empty seats. I told them I didn’t mind waiting a little, but I was assured no places would be made available.

So what did I do? I sat in the Sunken Lounge, which I’ll admit sounds as much out of a David Lynch film as it feels, but it’s not part of the Twin Peaks universe (I think), it’s the bar. Instead, it looks like a place where Don Draper and Roger Sterling might have a few too many in an early season of Mad Men. I will say my experience with my Martini (then my Negroni, and then another Negroni) as I waited to see if the restaurant filled up was pleasant. The energy is good, and people were enjoying their drinks and the ambience. Strangers were striking up conversations with each other, and one happy table was in period-appropriate costume. A little cosplay on a Friday never hurt anybody, I guess.

Courtesy of TWA Hotel

The servers wear smart red dresses that match the all-red carpeting and upholstery and admittedly great TWA-branded white sneakers. When I told our waitress that I was waiting to see if the aforementioned guests with reservations were going to turn up at the restaurant, she smiled, leaned in, and quietly told me, “I think they’re having some trouble with that place.”

I waited 30 minutes more, saw no customers show up, then went to the very nice but flustered person at the front desk and asked if there was anywhere to order dinner from or if I should just go to the Buffalo Wild Wings inside the airport. Thankfully, he did suggest one local Italian place, which was fine. The delivery person said they’d been getting orders from other hotel guests. I ate a passable chicken parmesan that I almost feel obligated to review here because I can’t honestly tell you how the food at the TWA Hotel is because, well, they don’t seem to want anybody to know. When I tried again in the morning to see if I could get breakfast, it was the same routine.

OK. So overall, how do you grade the TWA Hotel at JFK?

I was skeptical, but I decided to pay for a night in the hotel and treat myself to a little staycation not far from my apartment. I’m a sucker for historic hotels and famed architects. The Langham in Chicago, located in Mies van der Rohe’s IBM Building, for instance, is one of my favorite spots in the country. It’s tastefully done and the classic building is treated well.

The TWA Hotel is definitely cool. Period-era phone booths? A couple of facsimiles of mid-century TWA posters? Carpet that looks like it hasn’t been changed since the 1980s? I mean, sure, I love an Eames chair as much as the next Brooklynite. I think it is majorly groovy that so much of the furniture that MCR, the firm that did the update, was won at the auction for the old Four Seasons. It’s a really great looking space and they keep that strength on display.

The thing I like about the Langham is that it doesn’t feel like a huge trap for the #hotellife #influencer set. Besides Connie, the old TWA plane restored into a bar just outside the Sunken Lounge, the TWA is surprisingly low on the spots to take selfies, and I appreciate that. They could have gone way overboard trying to sell you on the midcentury vibe, but it’s balanced nicely. It shows the respect they have for the building.

There’s definitely a lot of room to improve on what seems unfinished. If they can deliver on the glamorous experience of air travel days gone by, the TWA Hotel could be the most pleasant place to stay near the grim JFK airport. In the meantime, it feels too much like I’m trying to take another flight where the most minor luxuries are held in front of us, but never given. Where we can pay to upgrade, but we’re never satisfied. Where there is stuff to snack on, but you’ll never feel sated. This wasn’t the future of travel we were promised, but as we go back to the future at the TWA Hotel, it feels like the one we’ve settled for.