The Pan Am Worldport
A lot about New York’s John F. Kennedy airport has changed since it first began operation as New York International Airport in 1948, commonly known as Idlewild until it was rechristened John F. Kennedy Airport in 1963. It was, during the heyday of jet-set travel, a model for the sleek, modernist style that defined journeys by air. It’s safe to bet that almost everyone who was anyone in the glamor days of jet travel passed through the gates of JFK, including James Bond. Bond was no stranger to New York. He was there for Live and Let Die, both the film and the novel, and returned for the (really) short story “007 in New York,” which Ian Fleming was compelled to write by way of a “make peace” after his travel book, Thrilling Cities, peppered readers with an unending barrage of insults directed toward the Big Apple. In fact, he visits several more times, in Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger, both by Fleming, in For Special Services and Brokenclaw by John Gardner, and in the short story “Blast From the Past” by Raymond Benson.
But it is Live and Let Die that gives us the most involved look at James Bond’s New York. He arrives in New York via John F. Kennedy International Airport. Only in 007’s case, he gets to emerge from a terminal we denizens of the 21st century cannot: the Pan-Am Worldport. Over the decades, the futuristic architecture of JFK has been trimmed, pruned, and demolished for any number of reasons. In some cases, the original buildings simply couldn’t be brought up to modern codes of safety. In others, the airline that paid for them went belly up, taking their space age showpiece terminals with them. In many other cases, it was simply the depressing march toward a more mundane, less tasteful sort of “conference room dreariness” that seems to travel in-step with cost-cutting measures. One by one, the jewels in JFK’s crown were pried up.
Terminal 3, known as the Worldport, was once the distinctive flying saucer shaped home of Pan Am. It was designed by two firms: Ives, Turano & Gardner Associated Architects and Walther Prokosch of Tippets-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton and adorned with statues derived from the Zodiac by sculptor Milton Hebald. It’s signature was the giant flying saucer roof, notable not just for the ambition of its design but also for the fact that it made the terminal one of the first to offer passengers protection from the elements as they boarded or disembarked the plane (this was before the era of covered jetways connecting the interior of the terminal directly tot he plane’s hatch). It also boasted the Panorama Room, a restaurant with a view of the entire concourse, and a museum dedicated to the history of Pan American Airlines.
The designers meant for it to be the shining example of jet age design and the glamor of travel. When it opened in 1960, it was known simply as the Pan Am Terminal, or more officially, the Pan Am Unit Terminal Building. In 1971, it underwent expansion in order to accommodate the gigantic new Boeing 747 jets, which vastly expanded access to international jet travel. It was at that time Terminal 3 got its new name: the Worldport. Not too long after that, James Bond strode confidently through the terminal in Live and Let Die.
James Bond was not the only famous person to put in an appearance at the Worldport. Heck, it wasn’t even Roger Moore’s only appearance. He walked through the terminal during a bit of location shooting for an episode of the series that got him the gig as James Bond, The Saint. In 2011, as Delta was signing the death warrant for the terminal itself, it found brief renewed glory via sets and CGI in the short-lived nostalgic television series Pan-Am, which incidentally, also boasted an espionage plot as one of its major threads. James Bond’s port of arrival is often misidentified as the similarly famous, even more architectural ambitious TWA Flight Center. But that’s not the case. And unlike the Worldport, the TWA Flight Center might be vacant, but at least it still stands.
For twenty years, the Worldport remained an example of the ambition and creativity of the jet set era and was one of the largest terminals in the world. That all came to an end in 1991, when Pan Am folded and Delta took over the terminal. In an effort not to completely demonize Delta, I’ll say that it is likely by that time, the Worldport was probably in need of a lot of upkeep and modernization that the failing Pan Am had not been able to provide. However, Delta had no interest in doing anything but the minimum required to keep the building from collapsing — at least until such time as they decided to collapse it themselves. They allowed it to deteriorate into a shell of its former glory until, in 2013, it was decommissioned and demolished to the sound of much public outcry.
I flew out of the Worldport a couple times before Delta destroyed it to make a parking lot for its airplanes. One could find, if one searched, remnants of the terminal’s former glory, but by and large it had been the victim of the creeping cheapness and disinterest that typifies modern air travel, which treats itself less as a wondrous adventure and more as just a fast food conveyer belt sort of experience. When Delta announced plans to demolish the terminal, preservationists around the world mobilized to protect the historic Worldport. They didn’t succeed. On May 23, 2013, the final departure from the Worldport left the terminal. Delta Air Lines Flight 268 to Tel Aviv departed from Gate 6 at 11:25pm. The next day, Delta shuttered the entire terminal, 53 years to the day from when it opened. On June 23, demolition began despite sustained outcry, protest, and attempts to halt the destruction of such an iconic piece of aviation and architectural history. On November 22, the signature flying saucer was destroyed. By the summer of 2014, the Worldport existed only in photographs.