National News

Teterboro Airport: Steeped in Glamour, History and Noise

Posted January 1, 2018 7:23 p.m. EST

TETERBORO, N.J. — There was a time when Teterboro Airport was the crown jewel of the New York region.

Charles Lindbergh often flew into the New Jersey airport, 12 miles northwest of midtown Manhattan, to meet with the president of Wright Aeronautical, which built the engine that powered his historic trans-Atlantic flight. Amelia Earhart flew here to prepare for her own trans-Atlantic trip. The F-32, the world’s biggest passenger plane when it was built in 1930, roared to life at Teterboro, as did the Barling Bomber, then the largest American-made bomber.

“At that time, there was nothing but pride for having a facility like that,” said Shea Oakley, executive director of the Aviation Hall of Fame of New Jersey, which is on the airport’s grounds.

Today, Teterboro, the first airport in the metropolitan area when it opened in 1919, is more likely to conjure grimaces than pride.

“Growing like a monster,” some neighbors say of the airport, which sits on 827 acres and handles general aviation, industry-speak for noncommercial flights. “Horrific” is a word used by others. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Teterboro, received more than 2,300 noise complaints about the airport in 2016 — an average of about one every four hours.

In a November report, the Regional Plan Association, an influential urban policy group, recommended phasing out the airport, which it said would be flooded by rising sea levels by the end of the century. It suggested diverting Teterboro’s flights to the region’s three major airports — Kennedy, La Guardia and Newark Liberty — instead.

The idea has fans.

“Speaking from the residents of Hackensack, I believe that they would be thrilled to not have to be part of the impact of the airport,” said Kathy Canestrino, the deputy mayor of Hackensack, which is 3 miles from Teterboro.

But for Teterboro’s loyalists, including many employees who have worked there for decades, shutting it down is unfathomable. The airport is an economic engine for the area, supporting more than 170,000 takeoffs and landings and 14,900 jobs each year, according to the Port Authority. It drives more than $2 billion in annual sales activity.

And despite the Regional Plan Association’s recommendation, the Port Authority is expanding the airport. Plans are underway to develop 15 acres, including the construction of three hangars.

“There have been various efforts over the years to close Teterboro, but it’s not possible,” Oakley said, citing the volume of flights the airport accommodates.

“It’s an absolutely essential facility,” he added. In a statement, the Port Authority called the Regional Plan Association’s forecast “overly pessimistic” and said the agency had already improved the airport’s drainage and sewage systems.

The gulf between those who would see Teterboro closed and those who cannot imagine such a thing is fitting for an airport seemingly made of contradictions. It is a centerpiece of aviation history that is virtually unknown outside select circles, a gateway for the rich and famous that is surrounded by wetlands.

“People think it’s just tumbleweeds: ‘Oh, it’s just a noisy thing, we don’t need this,'” said Ed Furst, president of the Teterboro chapter of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association. “But there’s a whole lot of business that’s behind this airport. There is a lot of history behind it.”

The airport is dominated by four companies that handle private planes, providing services from fuel to repair to storage, said Kirk Stephen, director of marketing for Meridian, which owns a terminal and three hangars at Teterboro.

On a recent afternoon, men in crisp suits and families dragging suitcases filed through Meridian’s lobby, which, with its illuminated Christmas tree, placards advertising free internet, and somewhat sterile air, was reminiscent of a first-class lounge at Kennedy or Newark.

“We cater to a very discerning clientele,” Stephen said.

The airport fiercely guards the privacy of its customers. Discretion is one of the reasons many choose Teterboro, Stephen said. Celebrities and business executives can slip undisturbed from the plane to the private terminal to a black car bound for the city. Furst said airport workers were trained to give passengers a wide berth. Most are so accustomed to seeing famous faces that they hardly blink. (Furst conceded that he had once said hello to Bill Gates.)

Many of the restaurants that provide passenger meals are not even told who they are for, said Susanna Bazzarelli, co-manager of the nearby Italian restaurant Bazzarelli. Still, clues slip through.

An order once arrived for a “high profile” customer who asked for several servings of kid-friendly foods such as pizza and pasta. Bazzarelli recalled thinking: “Oh, my God, like, it’s got to be Angelina Jolie.” (She later found out she was right.)

Teterboro is also an important gateway for organ transplants and other medical services, said Michael Klein, chief executive of OpenAir, a charter company that operates out of Teterboro. Airlifting a kidney or a heart needs to be done on short notice — a difficult task at commercial hubs, where takeoffs and landings must be scheduled days in advance, Klein said.

“We’ll get a call in the middle of the night,” he said. “Typically within an hour we’ll be in the air. Someone needs a liver, someone else dies and wants to donate a liver — that all comes together very quickly.”

But neighbors worry that the low-flying, ever-larger corporate jets that frequent the airport are not only noisy but dangerous. In May, a jet bound for Teterboro crashed in the nearby town of Carlstadt, killing two on board. In 2009, a pilot died after his plane crashed as it approached Teterboro; the accident came just two weeks after a plane that had departed from the airport collided with a sightseeing helicopter over the Hudson River, killing all nine people aboard both aircraft. The current flight path into Teterboro brings planes directly over Hackensack’s high-rise condominiums, said Connie Bovino, chairwoman of the town’s Condo and Co-op Advisory Board.

Bovino said that when she lived on the 20th floor of a high-rise, she would often make eye contact with pilots passing by.

Murray Runin, the previous chairman of the board, acknowledged that the airport might provide some economic benefit.

“But is it benefiting the local economy in a safe manner?” he said. “At a certain point, when do you say it’s too much?”

The Federal Aviation Administration recently agreed to evaluate an alternate flight path beginning in 2019 that goes over a highway instead of the high-rises.

Canestrino, Hackensack’s deputy mayor, said she was optimistic that the new flight path would reduce tensions. It would not, however, address a root of the dissatisfaction with Teterboro: a feeling that towns like Hackensack absorb all the drawbacks of the airport without reaping any of the benefits, Canestrino said.

“Very separate and distant,” she said of the relationship between the airport and its neighbors.

Even some of Teterboro’s devotees, like Klein, acknowledged the difficulty of communicating the joys of the airport to those who had not flown into it.

“To get there, it’s something hard to do,” Klein said.

But, he said, it is worth the difficulty.

“It’s busy, it’s exciting,” Klein said. “Your adrenaline goes when you walk around that place. You see just everything that you can imagine, from a guy in a business suit to a military helicopter to a jet going internationally.

“You have to experience it,” he added.