A Night at the TWA Hotel

Stepping back in time with a return to JFK.

TWA hotel at JFK International Airport
The sunken lounge at the TWA hotel at JFK International Airport.Dick Karl

On a hot August day 50 years ago, I was deposited in front of the Trans World Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport in a rented Cadillac. The Caddy needed some timing work done on the engine, and the ambient temperature had outpaced the vehicle’s air conditioning, but I didn’t care. I was flying to London on TWA—it was a big day. The world and its possibilities seemed as soaring as the Eero Saarinen-designed terminal building.

The structure had been commissioned by TWA in 1956 and opened in 1962. It was an iconic symbol of postwar optimism, exotic travel and financial exuberance. The airline lasted 39 tumultuous years after that wonderful day, but the building—though vacant from 2001 until 2019—was never razed. It has now been repurposed as the lobby of the TWA hotel.

I was back, 50 years and a day after that departure to London, deposited in front of the TWA terminal building/hotel again, this time in a Sheltair van. Now I was here for fun, not travel—for nostalgia, not a coach ticket. This time, I came in my own airplane and with 50 years of a full life under my belt. I wanted to celebrate the dreams of my youth and be reminded of all those good times.

The flight to KJFK in our Cessna Citation was surprisingly easy. My friend Rob Haynes was at the controls, though I served as PIC. I owed Rob big time for a surprise he had engineered a few months earlier that caught me flat-footed. The most significant gesture I could think of as a repayment was to ask him to fly the leg to Kennedy in the CJ1.

While Rob hand-flew, I set us up for the ILS 22L and answered the several heading changes dictated by approach control. We were “cleared to intercept, maintain 2,000 until established.” We were 7 miles behind an Airbus 330. Rob painted her on, and we exited at Taxiway Hotel. Rob, a senior pilot at Southwest, said, “I just reached for the tiller, but you don’t have one.” I took this as a massive compliment. The flight had seemed to him enough like his Boeing 737-800 that his muscle memory directed his left hand to a missing tiller.

“Right on Zulu, left on Golf, hold short of 22 right, stay with me,” the tower said. Soon, we’re looking at the back end of the massive Airbus that was parked just short of 22R. It had just arrived from Amsterdam. Rob kept us back at a respectable distance—that thing could blow us over—where we could admire an Emirates Airbus 380 taking off right to left. We were definitely dancing with the big boys.

Finally cleared to cross, we were instructed to taxi via Alpha, then Quebec. Great, except I couldn’t find Quebec on the taxi diagram, and there were two or three airliners behind us by now. Turns out, Alpha made a right-hand turn, and the straight-ahead taxiway was Quebec. Not so hard after all.

A cadre of young people in khaki uniforms greeted us on the ramp, each one holding a camera. Were they expecting a movie star? No, they were from a local school and learning how to marshal airplanes in tight quarters.

As we entered the cathedrallike hotel lobby, two young women dressed as TWA flight attendants from the past greeted us. Though our rooms weren’t ready, I didn’t mind because there was a lot to explore. The uniform display was worth inspection; original ’60s uniforms had given way to a casual look and morphed back into uniforms over TWA’s history. The restaurants were midcentury modern and well-populated at midafternoon. The Paris lounge was to be our dinner spot.


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The huge windows were Tiffany-clean, and through them, we could see the restored Constellation that was parked out back. The Connie is an emblem of the TWA high-water mark. Howard Hughes was reluctant to buy jets in the late ’50s, and Pan Am and others flew right by him and the airline soon thereafter. But in her day, the massive Lockheed could fly nonstop from Los Angeles to London in under 17 hours.

Rob and I couldn’t wait to get into the Connie—mostly for old times’ sake, but we were also aware there was a bar in there. This watering hole did not disappoint. We sat in first-class seats, looked out at the huge Wright Cyclone engines and drank wine, all the while imagining what it might have been like in those days to take wing in this airplane. Outside, we noticed the fresh tires on the gear and fiberglass props sporting Hamilton Standard’s logo on the engines. This was a reproduction with respect. We remembered the triple tail was designed so the airplane, which sits up so tall and proud, could fit into the hangars of the day.

Soon, our wives waved us to the infinity pool on the top floor of the hotel. It seemed that 200 folks or so had been security searched and then jumped in. The crowd was living it up. The kids were splashing, and parents were drinking. We sat at a table and watched the show. There goes Cathay Pacific nonstop to Hong Kong. Some days, it goes east over the pole, some days it goes west. Either way, it’s 15-plus hours.

The A380s came and went so frequently, we became blasé about such weight being airborne. We watched with bated breath as an Etihad 380 nosed at a sluglike crawl into a parking spot. Though the captain had been in the airplane for 14 hours since departing Abu Dhabi, he or she was not eager to catch a wingtip. Whew.

Dressed for drinks and dinner, we began in the sunken lounge. As we looked up at the recreated departure board, the simple lines and justright size of the all-white building became obvious. Any bigger, it would have been cavernous; any smaller, it would have been claustrophobic. With words like “awesome,” “outstanding” and “amazing” flowing like the falls of Niagara these days, it is impossible to describe the proportional elegance of this alabaster harmony resurrected from the past. It spoke these words to me: “Let’s go someplace. Now. First class.”

Dinner was simple—and simply excellent. Then it was back to the various bars and, eventually, to bed. From our room, we could see huge airliners at the trough, gearing up and filling up for another long haul.

The next day, we were instructed to “plan on Runway 4L and taxi via Quebec 4, hold short November.” Only Quebec 4 didn’t come anywhere near November. I would have been afraid to question the curt ground controller, but Rob, who was on the radios this time, had no hesitation requesting “clarification of taxi route.” The controller had left out a taxiway. Soon, we were number one, waiting for JetBlue to land. Seconds later, we were up and gone, with a right turn to 100 degrees. See you.

The experience left me thinking, “Let’s go somewhere,” and grateful I’d spent 24 hours with good friends who appreciate airplanes like I do. If we can’t go somewhere, we can at least go to the airport and watch somebody else get that feeling that comes to you as the power comes up.