AirTrain 2004: Truth or Consequences?

Flying out of JFK in two weeks, being something of a travel freak, and having a nice evening with no obligations on my hands, I wanted to figure out the JFK AirTrain to see if it was practical and figure out any problems with logistics. The major question that I had was whether it was better to take the LIRR to Jamaica or the A Train to Howard Beach. So I decided to take it to Jamaica towards JFK, and the A Train departing from JFK. The tag point would be the schedule screens next to the news stand in front of the security checkpoint at Terminal 9, American Airline’s domestic terminal.

7:05 PM: bus from Downtown Brooklyn to the Flatbush LIRR station (aka Atlantic/Pacific).
7:10 PM: let off across the street on Flatbush after Atlantic Avenue. Big mistake: it’s virtually impossible to cross the street on the south west corner as traffic from those two thorughfares doesn’t stop for anyone. Note to self: get off at the previous stop.
7:18 PM: finally get into station, missed the train that had just left 3 minutes ago. Bought a $2.50 CityPass (a single one way weekend discount fare for travel within the City limits). The full off-peak fare is $6.50.
7:48 PM: next train to Jamaica leaves. This is not your parents’ LIRR train — new faux leather cushioned chairs similarin feel and color scheme to Amtrak’s Acela service. It has a real bathroom which is wheelchair accessible, meaning it’s bigger than my kitchen.
8:07 PM: train arrives on time at Jamaica. Elapsed time for this leg: 62 minutes (actual travel time had all connections been made: 25 minutes)

8:15 PM: tragedy strikes. The AirTrain is down — some sort of computer problem; the computers are being restarted. The bus just left, but another bus will show up in five minutes, at least that was the promise. A number of people go up the elevator only to be told to go back down the escalator.
8:32 PM: bus driver walks over — he was parked around the corner and no one told him he should be where we were standing. Other Chinese guy who was a Chairman Mao look-a-like was going my way — he was equally confused.
8:52 PM: Arrive at American Airlines Terminal 9. Kind of anti-climatic, but things were cooking in the arrivals area.
Total cost: $2.50 plus $1 tip to the bus driver (the bus was free because of the mishap) and 167 minutes (44 minutes of actual travel time). At full fare, this trip would have been $6.50 for the LIRR and $5 for the AirTrain.

As apparently someone managed to give a swift kick into the systems’ innards, I tried the internal loop to get to Terminal 4, the International terminal.
9:00 PM: walked over to the 8/9 AirTrain station. The internal loop train arrived. Pretty much identical to AirTrain Newark’s trains. They are actually not a monorail, but have regular size tracks and an electrified third rail. According to what I read, magnets in the bottom of the train push off against other magnets placed between the rails to propel the train, so there’s no real motor to speak of. The interiors are spacious and suitable for carrying a few pieces of luggage.
9:05 PM: We’re stuck at the station. After a woman fiddles with some hidden controls underneath the back window of the front car, we are finally able to leave the station.
9:10 PM: got to Terminal 4. Whole lot of Koreans waiting in front of the security checkpoint eating and just generally procrastinating before going through security. A Robert Palmer-esque phalanx of 5′-11″ Korean supermodels in flight attendant uniforms part the crowd as they march to the security checkpoint. Contemplate eating dinner, but the best thing on offer was a $6.34 Big Mac, so I pass on it.
9:30 PM: The outbound loop is back in operation, get on the wrong train towards Jamaica. I get off at the 8/9 stop and wait for a Howard Beach train.
9:45 PM: After 2 more Jamaica trains pass, the Howard Beach train arrives. Top speed on the train is something around 60 mph, as we were lapping cars on the Van Wyck at one point, but we eventually coasted to around 45 mph. Annoying conductor begins telling people not to lean on the doors, but there’s nowhere for people to go as it’s as crammed in as the 4 train in the morning. Must have been all of the people who got stuch when the system went down.
10:00 PM: Arrive at Station B, long term parking. The FlyerTalk bulletin board describes a technique where if you know how to exit the parking lot and get to the local streets, you can bypass the last stop and legally avoid paying the $5 fare.
10:15 PM: I walk following underneath the tracks, and end up at the last stop. However, it’s pretty dark, and I can’t find the cross-over to the other side of the street, so I give up and reenter AirTrain through Station A and pay the fare.

Total travel time for this leg: 30 minutes (10 minutes waiting for 3 trains, 15 minutes actual travel time plus 5 minutes walking between Station B and Station A).

Note to NYC natives with an unlimited Metrocard: it’s $5.00 to enter or leave the AirTrain, payable only with a debit MetroCard. Standard Unlimited Metrocard does not work. When leaving at Station A, there are two banks of hi-tech looking turnstiles: a right bank(more like straight ahead) and a left bank . If you take the left bank, your card will be debited $7 for both the AirTrain exit plus the subway entrance. If you take the right bank, you will be only charged $5 for the AirTrain exit. Then you can then turn left and enter the subway through regular turnstiles using your unlimited MetroCard and save $2.00.

10:18 PM: The A train arrives relatively quickly. Trip was quick and uneventful.
10:45 PM: A train arrives at Jay Street/Borough Hall station.
This leg: 27 minutes (30 minutes including waiting time). Total time: 75 minutes (44 minutes actual travel time, assuming 2 additional minutes had I taken the train between Stations B and A). $7 cost (could have been $5 had I not been snookered into not using the unlimited Metrocard, or $0 if I had found the long term parking shortcut).

Mode Bus LIRR AirTrain Subway Wasted Net Total Cost
LIRR/Jamaica (Advertised) 5 19 16 0 0 40 40 $7.50 ($11.50 weekdays)
LIRR/Jamaica (Actual) 5 19 20 (bus substitute) 0 123 44 167 $2.50 + $1 tip
Howard Beach/A Train (Advertised) 0 0 8 29 0 37 37 $7 ($5 with unlimited MetroCard)
Howard Beach/A Train (Actual) 0 0 17 27 18 44 75 $7 (could have been $5 or $0 with unlimited MetroCard)

The options are practically equal from Downtown Brooklyn except for the missed connections and the higher cost of the LIRR. As viewed on The Amazing Race, where connections are involved and all other things being equal, take the option that is more frequent and has the most opportunities for connections. Jamaica/LIRR may work out better going towards Penn Station, since trains show up practically every 5 minutes going in that direction, but there are 30 minute gaps in service going to and from Flatbush. There’s some questions about AirTrain’s overall reliability, but the staff is usually able to reboot the system or get alternate transport relatively quickly. However, while the trip itself is more comfortable and avoids traffic, it doesn’t get there faster than the previous train/bus combo, and it’s $5 more expensive.

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