The Daily Flyer
Welcome to the January 22, 2021 edition of “The Daily Flyer,” The Higher Flyer‘s newsletter that gathers up and summarizes some of the most important happenings in the world of airlines, hotels, award points, and other travel-related subjects. Today’s feature leads with a closer look at Moynihan Train Hall, the impressive successor to New York’s wretched Penn Station, and then moves on to cover more typical subject matters: previewing travel policies in the Biden Administration, the debut of the IATA Travel Pass, and even MORE higher flyer predictions for 2021.
The Headline Feature
President of the United States and noted Amtrak aficionado Joe Biden previously lamented that New York’s Penn Station was “barely hanging on by a thread” before criticizing the decaying terminal — and other similar structures around the country — as a “national disgrace.” That was in 2017 and he’s been no stranger to these issues. In 2014 then-Vice President Biden once likened LaGuardia airport to that of “some third world country,” and as a presidential candidate in 2020, he made infrastructure restoration a key part of his “Build Back Better” plan. It’s clear that New York shares Biden’s vision for modernized transit hubs, as it invested $550 million in to developing Penn Station’s successor (plus billions more for LaGuardia) that, as of January 1, 2021, is open for public use. Referred to as the Moynihan Train Hall, its opening could not have come soon enough, and the facility looks ready to usher in an exciting era of rail transport.
For nearly half a century, millions of passengers traveling by train to and from Midtown Manhattan have been served by the “new” Penn Station, which was constructed underneath Madison Square Garden, which itself had been built over top the “old” Penn Station. The original building was considered an architectural masterpiece and revered in a way that its counterpart Grand Central is today…
…But its successor never garnered such accolades. In fact, the destruction of the original was such a grave loss and the backlash was so fierce that it played a significant role in inspiring the historic preservation movement. See for yourself what a downgrade the “new” Penn Station was/is:
Self-proclaimed design writer Ian Volner wrote an excellent piece for The New Yorker in which he captures the complicated, frustrating dynamic surrounding the city’s train station situation, and also the hope for the future. He romanticizes the old Penn (henceforth referred to as the “original”), bemoans its “squalid” replacement (henceforth referred to as the “old”), and then heralds “the Moynihan Train Hall’s glorious arrival” (henceforth referred to as the “new”). He concludes that the new building atones for the past sins.
Having been there myself last week, I agree with Volner; Moynihan Train Hall deserves all the good press that it’s earned so far. When you arrive by rail though, your initial impression might be a tad underwhelming. Moynihan’s platforms are shared between the old Penn Station — seriously, they’re the exact same ones — and you can enter the old terminal if you walk far enough to the east… but why would you choose to do that?!
Instead keep your eyes peeled for small-but-bright arrow signs that direct you to Moynihan Train Hall.
Eventually you’ll reach a well-marked, hard-to-miss escalator…
…And, as you begin to make your way upstairs, the experience becomes decidedly premium. The escalator I rode had seen better days and it creaked loudly, but it was ensconced in marble tiles that made up for the unpleasantries. When you look up and catch a glimpse of the 92-foot-tall glass ceiling, it’s hard to feel anything but astonishment — the shock is especially palpable if you’ve transited the old Penn Station — even if the metal steps make your feet vibrate.
If you’re heading in the opposite direction, the visual aesthetic is equally compelling. The soft and warm lighting combined with the marble makes the escalators down to the train platforms — one that’s at New York Penn no less — as appealing as it can be.
Meanwhile, if you arrive at Moynihan Train Hall on foot or by car, you’ll be treated to an impressive experience from the get-go. You can enter the facility opposite the old Penn Station/Madison Square Garden at 8th Avenue and 31st or 33rd Street, or a half-block to the west in between 8th and 9th Avenue. Here’s a map to illustrate the positioning:
The train hall is named for former New York Senator Daniel “Pat” Moynihan, who had once been a tireless advocate for repurposing the structure — formerly the James A. Farley Post Office — as a rail station. In his childhood, Moynihan had worked at the first Penn as a shoe shine, and like many others, he was dismayed by the replacement’s cramped, nasty enclosures. He figured that the Farley Building across the street, which is also in the same Beaux Arts architectural style, was well-suited to become the successor to the original. Indeed it has, and, better yet, it still functions as a post office; soon it’ll be home to Facebook and other businesses too. It’s imposing and beautiful (especially when it’s lit up at night), and plazas on each street corner are adorned with juxtaposing modern art.
Just as you would at Grand Central Station, you‘ll descend a gradually sloping ramp to get from the street to the main floor. On the way you’ll pass signs that celebrate Moynihan’s grand opening in a way that only a town as proud as New York can pull off — “Dear New York, This is for You.“ ( …Uh, okay.) — and minimalist murals depicting the state’s great seal and motto, “Excelsior!”
The escalators and the ramps lead to the same place: a truly incredible concourse that is superior in every conceivable way to its predecessor. From the towering glass ceiling to exposed support beams and wide open spaces, this is a glorious sight to see!
During the day, this great room is illuminated by a virtually unlimited amount of natural light — a la the original Penn Station — and at night there’s dramatic mood lighting that vacillates between shades of purple and yellow. There are also obnoxious LED billboards, but oh well, gotta pay the bills somehow, and this design sure beats the garish and perpetual fluorescents at the other terminal.
You never have to worry about getting lost either. Platforms are easily identified thanks to massive, impossible-to-miss pillars…
…And navigating to other points of interest is a breeze thanks to the many legible, well-lit signs.
For some practical-yet-artistic flair that harkens back to Penn Station’s old days, there’s a massive Art Deco clock hanging high above the main concourse. All you have to do is look up from pretty much anywhere and you’ll see it in all its glory (check out its backstory if you’re so inclined). It’s especially convenient if you’re trying to calculate whether you have time for a coffee before catching a train.
The Moynihan Train Hall construction project has been tremendously successful by every which metric, but at the time of this writing in January 2021, it’s not quite finished. Its amenities specifically are lacking right now, but fortunately there are plans in place to further develop them later in 2021. There’s plenty of room to grow, but like everything else though, what’s available at this moment is excellent. Take the “Ticketed Waiting Room,” which is a free-to-access nook that masquerades as a business class lounge.
This area is mostly open to the rest of the terminal — which helps it feel more airy and spacious — but it’s partitioned off just enough so that it still feels like a refuge from the hustle and bustle. It has the capacity for a couple hundred people or so, and it offers free wifi, plenty of power outlets, and utilitarian-but-stylish (and varied) furnishings all in a well-lit space. Above all, the space is inviting, and unlike anywhere at the old Penn Station, it’s a place where you’d likely be happy to spend some time waiting.
Should you need assistance, there are employees stationed near the waiting room’s entrances who can provide it, and LED departure/arrival boards share comprehensive platform and schedule details for Amtrak and Long Island Railroad services.
The old Penn Station has the atmosphere of the inside of a toilet, but that characterization would be offensive to the toilets in Moynihan Train Hall. I kid, but the restrooms in the new terminal are luxuriously appointed — go figure that the marble design motif would extend even to the bathrooms — and there are gender neutral stalls for those who need them. There are private rooms available for nursing mothers too.
Beware that the food and drink situation at the Moynihan is, in its current state, underwhelming. For the time being, there’s nothing more than a Starbucks to satisfy your needs. Granted, you’re in Midtown Manhattan and it’s not like there’s a shortage of nearby dining options, but there’s next to nothing if you’re in a time crunch. There’s a food court slated to open in late-2021 that’ll bring some much-needed variety, but there’s not much to make do with in the interim. Perhaps consider bringing snacks with you in advance of your journey(s), or eat before your departure.
Until then there’ll be more… “cheeky” murals (like the one pictured below) in the spots where shops and eateries will some day occupy.
Amtrak is the primary tenant at Moynihan Train Hall, but the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) has set up a nice space for itself too. There are ticket vending machines and a help desk and expansive and informative monitors all occupying a bright, clean space on the main level. Just as it is elsewhere, there are marble floors and high wooden ceilings that combine to make a fantastic, classy, and vaguely-Scandinavian look.
In order to board a LIRR train though you unfortunately have to go downstairs to a less-inspiring secondary concourse. Being in the basement means there’s not a lot of headroom, but the sky blue mood lighting makes a difference in reducing any claustrophobic sensations. Who knows if this section of the station will be as pleasant when it’s chock full of commuters post-COVID, but kudos to the designers for making the most of a not-great situation.
This goes without saying, but even the Moynihan’s lesser spaces are better by leaps and bounds than whatever Penn Station calls its best. Leave it to a man of God to express the sentiments of millions of New York-bound travelers:
Indeed, thank God for the Moynihan Train Hall!
Let’s hope that this marvel will inspire and usher in a new era of (rail) travel in the United States. Its grand opening represents a momentous step forward for the country’s “nationally disgraceful” infrastructure, and perhaps with an encouraging, motivated ally now in the White House, New York’s success here will serve as an exemplar for others to follow. The Moynihan Train Hall raises the bar to a new height, and we’d all be better served if our terminals at both railways and airports resembled this one. Excelsior!
Stay tuned for a fuller review — complete with daytime photos — later in 2021. Once the new Acela trains enter service and the food court opens, this is bound to be all the more impressive (and awe inspiring).
From The Higher Flyer
The recurring entry in the “Photo of the Week!” series came a day early on Thursday instead of Friday. As the post’s introduction explains: “Given recent events, a special edition this Thursday instead seemed more appropriate [than waiting until Friday]. There was another peaceful, long-awaited transition of power in the United States [on January 20], and it’s time to take a deep sigh of relief, reflect on the state of affairs, and celebrate democracy before getting back to work.”
As for when we’ll “[get] back to work,” it continues: “accordingly, a one-time Friday “Daily Flyer” newsletter (dedicated to President Biden no less) will be released [Friday] January 22.” Here we are as promised!
Aside from that, Norwegian Air announced last week that it’s terminating its long haul operations, and it will instead focus on maintaining a strong European network. That news is disappointing because the carrier was an effective disruptor in the otherwise pricey transatlantic market; it enabled millions to travel internationally and it offered a competitive, surprisingly comfortable passenger experience. With its stunningly cheap fares and well-maintained 787s, Norwegian embodied affordable higher flying… Too bad it was never profitable. Anyway, in memory of what it once was, check out this old mini trip report pulled from the THF archives.
Other developments, discussions, and articles in higher flying
Three things worth reading from around the web.
1. “How U.S. Travel Policies Change in the Biden-Harris Era.”
To continue on the topic of the intersection of politics and higher flying, the Biden Administration has sprung in to action since taking office two days ago, and it’s already implemented a series of policies that will undoubtedly affect travel. Biden repealed the so-called “Muslim ban” within hours of his inauguration by way of presidential proclamation, meanwhile he and his team have been tightly focused on containing COVID-19. To that end the president has already unveiled an executive order effective immediately that mandates mask wearing on public transportation (including planes, trains, boats, and busses), and upholds strict border controls and testing requirements for entrance in to the United States.
Once the pandemic is brought under control once and for all, various players in the tourism industry at large are hopeful for Biden’s agenda. Airlines, hotels, and other companies enjoyed unprecedented amounts of support from the Obama Administration and benefitted from years of sustained growth during his presidency, and now Biden appears poised to literally build on that legacy. Infrastructure reform was a key part of his campaign, and construction projects inspired by the Moynihan Train Hall are certain to be in the cards going forward. There are a whole host of initiatives to look forward to as well, and Skift contributors recently published a lengthy-but-comprehensive article covering what we can expect from the coming four years.
2. Emirates and Etihad to launch the IATA’s Travel Pass
Since the coronavirus outbreak, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has been developing a digital application that functions as a virtual shot card (among other things). Known as the Travel Pass, the software would allow passengers to upload COVID test results and/or vaccine records to a portal that’s accessible to airlines and maintained by the IATA. Carriers would then be able to efficiently verify that those on board their planes are both healthy AND in compliance with destinations’ arrival/entrance requirements. The platform is just about ready for public use, and Emirates and Etihad will be the first to trial it starting this spring. It could prove to be an effective solution for ensuring safe, responsible flying as the world begins to fully re-open, and it could enjoy a role in facilitating the travel industry’s re-awakening. Don’t be surprised if the Travel Pass enjoys widespread adoption by year’s end.
Sourced directly from two IATA press releases, one announcing Emirates’s participation and another for Etihad’s.
3. “11 ways earning and burning points and miles could change in 2021.”
The 13th entry in last week’s “21 higher flyer predictions for 2021” explains that loyalty programs are going to be scaled back this year as a means for airlines and hotels to cut costs, and then the 15th asserts that award point devaluations are certain to follow. Senior reporter Andrew Kunesh at The Points Guy agrees, and he goes in to much greater detail explaining what the negative changes could tangibly look like, how they might affect you, and then offers some suggestions for recourse. If you’re planning to travel this year on frequent flyer miles, the post is worth a read in order to help you strategize in advance of what’s likely to come.
… And that’s it for today. Got any tips? Questions? Comments? Email anything and everything to Paul@TheHigherFlyer.org, or comment below! In the meantime, thanks for reading, fly higher, and see you next week!
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