TWA Hotel exterior
All photos: Curt Epstein

New York’s TWA Hotel Conjures Up a Bygone Era

An old aircraft terminal at JFK Airport has been transformed into a fascinatingly anachronistic place to spend the night.

The mere fact that the former TWA terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport still exists is astounding. 

When TWA faltered in the early 2000s and was absorbed by American Airlines, the TWA lease on the complex was allowed to expire, reverting the property back to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. While that agency pondered its fate, the building remained empty, only briefly revisiting its past glory as a filming location for the Tom Hanks/Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can.

Sitting on some of the most valuable airport real estate in the world, the ethereal three-story building with its soaring wings was designed by noted Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen in the late 1950s and was meant to evoke a bird in flight. In 2005, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places, while a new JetBlue terminal rose behind it, replacing the old facility’s gate areas. A decade later, the airline and a developer unveiled plans to transform the TWA terminal into a hotel. 

TWA Hotel bedroom

Opened in 2019 as the 512-room TWA Hotel, it features a “head house” central area flanked by two towers, each housing 206 guest rooms. The towers are connected to the head house via the same bright red-carpeted tubes that passengers traversed to reach the gate areas in the terminal’s heyday.

After passing the vintage vehicles parked in front of the building, visitors walk through the front doors of the hotel, which is like entering a time warp to 1962, the year the TWA Flight Center debuted. Loudspeakers deliver music from the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and other stars of the era. The original monolithic flight notification board with its mesmerizing flipping letters has been restored and quietly updates guests about the departures and arrivals of long-ago flights on mainly long-defunct airlines. The former ticketing area, complete with a functioning baggage-handling belt, is now the hotel’s check-in area while the former baggage-claim center is a 24-hour food hall. Banks of vintage pay phones can be found, along with the recreation of a 1960s-era hair salon. 

TWA Hotel interior

Walking up the wide tiled staircase brings you to the airy main level of the head house where the glass wall behind the sunken lounge formerly provided a vista out onto the airport ramp beyond with its gates crowded with aircraft. Today it offers a picturesque view of the hotel’s restored 1958 Lockheed Constellation, the aircraft that was the backbone of the TWA fleet when the flight center opened. The four-engine “Connie,” which is accessible via vintage airstairs, retains its original cockpit while the cabin has been converted into a cocktail lounge. 

TWA Hotel hallway

The hotel—the only one on the JFK airport property—leans heavily into the TWA brand and the 1960s in general. Its guest rooms are furnished in neo-futurist style with TWA posters advertising exotic destinations and come furnished with rotary-dial phones. They feature floor-to-ceiling glass walls with powered shades for privacy and—given that commercial jets are operating less than 300 feet from the building—the sound insulation is remarkable.

During the construction of the hotel towers, a two-level conference center was excavated beneath the building to allow the facility to host large business gatherings. The rooftop of the Hughes guest wing (named after former TWA owner Howard Hughes) offers an infinity pool and a bar/observation deck where you can kick back and watch airport operations.