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Why Is Paying for the JFK Airport AirTrain Such a Huge Pain in the Ass?

Blame the Port Authority and the MTA.

6:16 PM EST on January 3, 2023

A huge crowd of people line up to purchase MetroCards in order to exit the AirTrain at the Jamaica subway stop.

Attempting to exit the AirTrain at Jamaica (Hell Gate)

It's a philosophical question that vexes every traveler who tries to take the subway to and from JFK Airport: why does the AirTrain experience suck so bad?

Specifically: Why is there seemingly always a bottleneck to pay the eight dollar fare to board the AirTrain? Why does the AirTrain require you to buy or load up an MTA MetroCard ($1 apiece) with cash to pay this fare, but does not accept OMNY, the MTA's tap-to-pay system that 40 percent of its subway riders currently use? (Don't try using your unlimited MetroCard, the system won't take it.) 

While the MTA controls the (frequently busted) MetroCard machines at the two AirTrain portals at Jamaica and Howard Beach, as well as the rollout of their OMNY technology, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey operates the AirTrain itself, and collects the eight dollar (that's $8.00, also known as EIGHT FUCKING DOLLARS) fare only for travelers attempting to enter and exit mass transit—drivers heading to their cars in the parking lot ride free. It's a black and white cookie of municipal dysfunction.

Last month, Hell Gate asked the chair and CEO of the MTA, Janno Lieber, what he was doing about the frequent bottlenecks at the subway/AirTrain connections, whether he'd spoken to the Port Authority about the issue recently, and if he has a firm date for when passengers can use OMNY capability for the AirTrain.

"I have not spoken to the Port Authority about the condition of the entry point that they operate," Lieber replied. While tap-to-pay can be used at every subway station and on every bus, the full OMNY rollout is some 2.5 years behind schedule and $100 million over budget; reduced fare programs, commuter rail, OMNY vending machines, and access to conveyances like the AirTrain have been stalled—some until 2025.

Lieber told us that this is why, two months ago, he asked his deputies to look at the OMNY implementation timeline, "tear it apart," and make the Cuomo-era initiative better. But he offered no firm date for tap-to-pay coming to the AirTrain.

"I decided that we needed to look at the schedule for how we were managing the project, because it was not being, in my view, managed the same way you would manage a more conventional mega project," Lieber said. "We inherited—I inherited, this project, which is great, but from my standpoint, has certain project management challenges."

You might be wondering why the Port Authority didn't adopt OMNY, a system that was introduced in 2019, some time ago. The Port Authority may also be wondering this, as a slide the agency produced from that same year indicated that PATH trains would "adopt MTA OMNY technology" in "2021/2022." That never happened, as the MTA's own delays dragged on. 

Instead, puzzlingly, the Port Authority announced in late 2021 that it would be developing its own tap-to-pay technology system with Cubic for its PATH trains, the same company the MTA uses for OMNY. (NJ Transit, which includes the $8 cost of the Newark AirTrain in its tickets, which can be purchased and scanned via smartphone, uses a different company called Conduent. The technical term for all this incompatibility is "LOL.")

The Port Authority offered Hell Gate no timeline for OMNY integration, and declined to address an old tweet from its JFK Airport account stating it'd happen "sometime in 2024." 

"We are working closely with the MTA on ways to speed up the schedule," the spokesperson said. Asked about what was causing the delays, the agency pointed to the MTA's answers to our questions about the issue.

Last month, VICE's Aaron Gordon made a strong argument for the Port Authority to eliminate the $8 fare from the JFK Airport Airtrain. The AirTrain is not a money maker, and making it free would encourage airport travelers to take mass transit (currently only 12 percent do) instead of waiting for an expensive, polluting private car. 

Well, it turns out the Port Authority does sometimes lift the fee from AirTrain/subway commuters, but only when the bottlenecks at the exits get really, really bad.

"The decision to temporarily open the fare gates at the JFK AirTrain stations to speed passenger throughput is being made on an exceptional case-by-case basis," a Port Authority spokesperson told us in an email, "only at peak periods when necessary while we make multiple other changes and await the installation of OMNY tap-and-go technology by the MTA."

Oh, and just a heads up: starting on January 15, part of your AirTrain fare may include a ride on a shuttle bus.

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