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When Bryan Rowan enters LaGuardia Airport, he begins mentally renovating. “It’s really too bad about this,” he says, gesturing to a low-ceilinged food court in Terminal B. “It all got redone recently to make the concessions more of a draw, but nothing can change the fact that these places are presecurity.” For Rowan, a financial model man behind the terminal’s $4 billion rebuild, a presecurity food court is like filet mignon cooked well done: Potential is a terrible thing to waste.

As we amble down a hallway toward Gate D security, Rowan explains that “this Central Terminal Building was designed in the 1960s.” And it was designed for half the current passenger volume. The CTB (the formal name for the central terminal) curves in a wide C shape, affording plenty of room for shops and restaurants. From the main building four narrow concourses extend like concrete quills. Around each one jut bridges capped by constellations of narrow-body and regional jets.

There’s not enough room for two planes to back up at the same time, Rowan points out. There’s not enough room for almost anything. “See how this concourse funnels people into a single security lane?” We watch a bottleneck of passengers in the security line, stripping laptops from cases, shoes from feet, dignity from selves. “Back when LaGuardia was built, of course, there was no way to foresee what flying would look like post-9/11.”

Having postsecurity shops and restaurants — concessions, to the airport aficionado — began to matter financially after security became so much tighter. “Nonticketed people used to be allowed right up to the gate,” Rowan notes. “While they waited to pick someone up, they could wander to a restaurant in the terminal to have dinner, then walk up to the gate for coffee. They had the run of the place. Now the travel experience is such that people are not going to be able to relax until they’re through security.” We watch a line of holidaymakers snaking through the entrance to JetBlue’s gates. “Once that time uncertainty is gone, instead of grabbing a water on the run, a passenger might sit down and have lunch or stop for a drink.”

A Look Inside America's Worst Airports

We amble past the Bowery Bay Tavern, a recent corporate attempt at a hipster pub. A couple of dozen beer taps flaunt local offerings, including Brooklyn Brewery. Despite the mostly empty bar stools (typical for presecurity), this attempt to bring the city into the airport is apparently a hot trend nationwide. Yet LaGuardia has five Auntie Anne’s pretzel stores and sometimes only Auntie Anne’s, depending on your gate. Either carbo-loaded passengers are more docile in a truculent plane takeoff line, or Auntie Anne is a legit rainmaker.

Neither is true, according to Rowan. And that matters. Just like the bars and food halls that are concentrated in the presecurity area, many things exist at LaGuardia that shouldn’t.

“The concessions are not optimally located from a revenue perspective right now,” Rowan explains. “They are where most of the room for growth is.” Whatever LaGuardia’s shops and restaurants bring in, the airport receives a portion to fund operations and capital. Buy a $4 bottle of Poland Spring from Hudson News and the airport gets roughly 72 cents, based on median figures from a recent survey of North American airports. On a pretzel dog ($3.99) with salsa cheese dip ($0.89), Auntie Anne’s might hand over 65 cents, but there isn’t enough heartburn in the world for that paltry amount of change to fund a world-class transportation hub.

America’s airports feel like bus stations because, broadly speaking, they are funded like bus stations. They don’t rely on taxpayer money, nor are they allowed to turn profits. Anything they earn must be reinvested into the facilities. The trouble for U.S. airports is that what they earn — through pennies on pretzels, rent from airlines, and a $4.50-per-ticket charge — isn’t nearly enough to keep pre-9/11 facilities safe, functioning, and ready for the 21st century. Overseas and in Canada airports have solved this problem by bringing in private investors, selling off operator rights, and taking control of, and often raising, the user fee. Those tactics either aren’t allowed in the U.S. or they haven’t been exercised. The result: places like LaGuardia. All day every day, thousands of people file onto airplanes headed to the U.S. guaranteed of one thing: Wherever they’re leaving is better than what lies ahead. LaGuardia Airport is North America’s worst, the perverse jewel in New York City’s Triple Crown of terrible airports. LaGuardia, Newark Liberty International, and John F. Kennedy International often sweep the bottom of U.S. rankings. LaGuardia, remarkably, has earned unanimous condemnation from airport nerds as the “worst in America,” uniting Travel + Leisure editors with the Points Guy, J.D. Power and Associates, and Frommer’s. T+L, perhaps the most discerning of the publications, gave “dilapidated” LaGuardia the “dubious honor 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.” It’s also worst for on-time performance and cancellations, says the Points Guy, and has somehow declined in overall quality since 2014. Welcome to the greatest city in the world.

“If I blindfolded someone and took them at two in the morning into the airport in Hong Kong and said, ‘Where do you think you are?’ they’d say, ‘This must be America; it’s a modern airport,’” Joe Biden, then vice president, told a crowd in Philadelphia at a 2014 Amtrak engine unveiling. (With infrastructure photo ops, U.S. politicians have to take what they can get.) “If I blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you would think, ‘I must be in some third-world country.’” The audience broke out in laughter. Biden pressed the point. “I’m not joking.”

Even in the petty world of tristate politics, the officials in charge of LaGuardia didn’t come to its defense. “I agree with him,” said Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the region’s major airports, bridges, ports, and roadways on its own balance sheet. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called LaGuardia a disgrace.

But at least LaGuardia is trying. The Central Terminal Building is set for the scrapyard, and its massive new replacement is budgeted to cost $4 billion, the main piece of an $8 billion overhaul plan. Frasca & Associates — the transport finance firm where Bryan Rowan has worked since college — joined the LaGuardia project in 2012 and supported the years-long process of evaluating bids to select a developer. What makes this project special is that the developer not only pours the concrete for the new LaGuardia, it owns the concrete — for the next 35 years, at least.

On June 1, 2016, the 35-year lease on Terminal B transferred from the Port Authority to an international consortium of private companies, winners of a long and competitive bidding war. They’ve promised a 21st-century LaGuardia that’s bigger, cleaner, easier to get to, and makes much more money, benefiting both the investors and the region. By 2021, LaGuardia should no longer suck. If all goes as planned — admittedly, that’s a big if — passengers will be able to swiftly exit taxis or meet their Uber drivers via an extra level for traffic, revel in three times the current Terminal B security screening capacity, walk to the Delta Air Lines terminal without going outside, and relax with a cocktail and nonpretzel-based meal postsecurity. Luxuries, one imagines, will abound in the terminal just as puddles used to proliferate on the floors when it rained.

How all this gets paid for is the job of Frasca & Associates. Rowan has spent a decade with the firm, specializing in financing airports. He does not rustle up capital from investors; instead, he works out the ideal combination of municipal bonds, taxable debt, equity offerings, cash flow, fees, leverage, creditworthiness, and more that puts a project into motion and sustains it. His and the firm’s presence at LaGuardia is a sign that this airport, and perhaps American airports as a whole, are finally ready to enter the modern age — an entrance delayed, experts say, by a nearly 70-year game of catch-up.

American aviation peaked high and early. The age of flight began in 1903 with 12 airborne seconds over a windswept Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Four years later a Brazilian in France debuted what would become the first series-production aircraft, capable of a searing 75 miles per hour. The French weaponized airplanes during World War I, and Americans continue to perfect the art. The Kim Kardashian of the sky — first in fame, one might say — was the Red Baron, the German ace who downed 80 rivals before taking a bullet to the heart over a village near the Somme River. Once again, what Europe did first, the U.S. did better: The 1920s and ’30s were the era of celebrity pilots like Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. Initial ventures into commercial aviation abruptly halted as World War II began and U.S. aviation became military aviation. When the war ended, Europe and its allies across the pond refocused on commercial air travel. The aeronautics industry began branching into two missions: flying civilians for money and transporting weapons for war.

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