A party in southern Queens, an hour outside of Manhattan, might not sound like the hottest event in town.
But when it’s the opening day of the TWA Hotel at New York City’s JFK airport, which took place May 15, it’s the hospitality – and aviation – moment of the year.
Models and dancers in 1960s attire mingled with aviation fans, architecture buffs and reporters – some wearing “Mad Men”-inspired looks and retro aviation gear – on the inaugural day of the much anticipated hotel, which is inside the former TWA air terminal designed by Eero Saarinen.
Inside the TWA Hotel
At 4 p.m. on the dot, when guests could officially begin checking in, one man, 23-year-old Dan Mickevic eagerly waited for his chance to get a bright red TWA-branded room key. But it wasn’t just about taking in the funky mid-century modern surroundings or sampling the Intelligentsia coffee on offer in the lobby.
Mickevic’s grandmother, who passed away in 2009, was a reservations agent for TWA for nearly two decades.
Aviation runs in the family. He now works on the JetBlue grounds crew at DCA Reagan National Airport and flew up from Washington, DC, for the day just for the opportunity to be one of the fortunate few to spend the opening night in the hotel.
“This is my way of honoring her,” he said.
And Mickevic wasn’t the only one with an emotional connection to TWA.
Several former flight attendants, some sporting their original uniforms, came to the hotel in order to get a long-awaited glimpse at the building that many of them had called home base.
TWA Airlines folded in 2001, and many employees were absorbed by American Airlines.
Deborah Doval, a New York City native, began working for TWA in 1976. She heard about the TWA Hotel opening through some of her fellow former flight attendants, who call themselves the Silver Wings. Many keep in touch on Facebook and email.
“It’s very emotional,” she told CNN Travel, her voice cracking slightly. “I never thought I’d get another opportunity [to come back]. It’s been wonderful to meet other women and hear their stories. We’re family.”
Flying on solid ground
Many of the people visiting the TWA Hotel weren’t there to spend the night.
One of the biggest draws was The Connie, aka an out-of-service Lockheed Constellation L-1649A Starliner propeller airplane that had been towed to New York and turned into a cocktail bar.
Visitors posed on the stairs leading into the plane, then on the reupholstered seats inside the cabin to sip Champagne and pose for photos. But the most popular vantage point by far was the cockpit, which has been opened up so travelers can see the controls and pretend to be a pilot.
The Sunken Lounge is the aptly named centerpiece of the hotel, a ground-floor lounge upholstered in bright TWA red where guests can order martinis from servers in red tunic dresses and look up at the rapidly changing flight board perched above them.
History is everywhere, even if you don’t go into the rooms.
Vintage TWA uniforms, some designed by famous fashion names like Ralph Lauren and Valentino, are on display in a mini-museum. Walk through the famous white-and-red “Saarinen tubes,” which were also created by the architect, from JetBlue’s terminal 5 and you’ll immediately feel transported into an other era.
Inside looking out
But, even the world’s most glamorous airport hotel is still, well, an airport hotel.
The rooms, designed by the New York City-based firm Stonehill Taylor, have crisp white linens and pops of TWA red on chairs and lamps, giving off the retro vibe without leaning too heavily into the theme.
Sure-to-be-stolen room amenities include branded bar soaps, water glasses, notepads and terrycloth bathrobes, and the rotary phones are there more for kitsch than practical use.
Luckily, not everything is trapped in the 1960s. The rooms have large flatscreen TVs, plenty of power outlets (although no USB ports) and button-operated window drapes. Rooms either look out onto the Terminal 5 runway or into the hotel, making Saarinen’s beautiul long white sweeps even more striking.
While some visitors were excited about the branding and amenities of the TWA Hotel, a few were simply relieved that JFK, one of the world’s busiest airports, finally had a hotel that’s accessible without having to go outside or wait for a shuttle bus.
The hotel has added an option to book rooms in four-hour blocks during the day, making it a solid option for travelers with long layovers who want a place to crash and use the shower – with more cachet than an airport lounge.
In short? The hotel is a destination in its own right, thanks to the vintage items on display and the fun food and drink options available in common spaces. But the beds are comfortable too.
TWA Hotel, JFK Airport, Jamaica, NY 11430; +1 212-806-9000