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The JFK AirTrain Finally Has OMNY But There’s Just One Catch (You Can’t Use It Yet)

The awful system is still awful but will be slightly less awful soon?

5:58 PM EDT on September 28, 2023

OMNY readers covered in black shrouds in front of fare gates at the JFK AirTrain exit at Jamaica.

OMNY readers covered in black shrouds stand in front of fare gates at the JFK AirTrain exit at Jamaica. (Hell Gate)

If you want to take the MTA's subway to and from the Port Authority's JFK Airport, you have to use an MTA MetroCard, load it with $8.25, insert it into the Port Authority's fare gates, and then enter the Port Authority's AirTrain. If you don't have a MetroCard, you must buy one, for $1. You can buy a MetroCard and load it with money by asking an attendant, who doesn't work for the MTA or the Port Authority, or you can use one of the MTA's MetroCard machines, some of which only take exact change.

Oh, don't forget: If you are leaving the AirTrain for the subway, you'd better make sure your MetroCard has a total of $11.15—$8.25 for the Port Authority's AirTrain, plus $2.90 for the MTA's subway fare.

Most people encounter this level of inane governmental inefficiency in a Gogol short story, but this is how tens of thousands of people actually enter New York City every day. So far, the Port (for short), which controls the AirTrain and its points of entry (among many other pieces of infrastructure across the region), has refused to install a tap-to-pay system, like OMNY, the one the MTA has been rolling out for years.

A huge group of passengers trying to exit the AirTrain at Jamaica on Thursday. (Hell Gate)

Except this week, the Port Authority did install OMNY readers at the Howard Beach and Jamaica AirTrain stations—though it hasn't made them available for use yet. 

At the Jamaica station, the larger of the two subway connections (it also has an LIRR stop), the Port Authority installed three OMNY readers for travelers exiting the AirTrain, and one OMNY reader for those entering it. At Howard Beach, there is one reader for each direction of travel.

The readers are covered in black cloaks with cute patches that read "Use MetroCard at this time."

A lonely OMNY reader at Howard Beach. (Hell Gate)

Why did the Port Authority install so few? When will they be turned on? A Port Authority representative declined to say anything, except that an announcement was forthcoming. A Port Authority employee at Jamaica said they didn't know either. "It's a big mystery," they told a Hell Gate reporter on Thursday.

"As a New Yorker, I think it's messed up. I think it needs to be more efficient," Samantha Scarlette said. Scarlette had just gotten off a flight from Wisconsin, and was waiting in a long line to pay for a MetroCard. She was helping Mark Smith and his daughter Sophia, who were visiting the city, get their bearings.

"I was so confused in there," Smith said, adding that he still didn't understand what exactly he was paying for, since he had already gotten off the AirTrain, and he wasn't planning on taking the subway once he got into the city. "So we gotta pay here, and we gotta pay again for the subway?"

Scarlette said the AirTrain's method of charging riders after they had already gotten off added to the sense of being swindled.

"First, $8.25 is ridiculous. It should be free. But if they're going to charge, it should say that when you get on it," she told Hell Gate. "To pay when you exit, it's almost like a gotcha."

Moments after the group loaded the AirTrain fares onto their MetroCards, and right before they were about to insert them into the fare gates, a voice came over the PA: "Ladies and gentlemen, the AirTrain gates are open." Someone at the Port Authority had determined that the area was too crowded and that the decks needed clearing. Travelers rushed in and out, temporarily spared having to pay $8.25 for around two minutes.

"Go through! The AirTrain is free!" shouted Saaim Ahmed, one of the third-party attendants who sell MetroCards to confused passengers. Ahmed told Hell Gate that the OMNY readers were "much-needed," and didn't think they'd eat into his business.

"Some people will always want to pay cash, other people are older and they want to talk to somebody," he said. "But no, I'd want them if I were a customer too. They make sense." 

At the Howard Beach subway station, a man selling MetroCard swipes was similarly unconcerned. "When there's a will, there's a way," he said, smiling.

While OMNY will be debuting at the AirTrain soon, PATH riders taking trains to and from New Jersey can expect a different payment system, albeit one created by the same company, Cubic, with the same functionality. PATH currently accepts MetroCards, why not just use OMNY? 

"For cost-efficiency and timeline certainty, we contracted directly with the same technology provider that OMNY uses, Cubic, which will also make it easier to address future maintenance issues," a Port Authority spokesperson told Hell Gate. "The technology is interoperable and will function the same as OMNY’s, allowing riders to simply tap their credit/debit card or phone to enter either system."

There you have it, the Port Authority is daring to be different.

One more thing. While we were tempted to enter the AirTrain system while the gates were open, we still had interviews to conduct, and by the time we were finished, the gates were closed. So we spent $8.25 taking the AirTrain to Howard Beach, where we exited and were immediately forced to pay $11.15—remember, $8.25 for the AirTrain ride, and another $2.90 to get on the A train—despite never having set foot in an airport terminal.

In other words, this story cost around $20 to report out in AirTrain/subway fees alone. Please consider subscribing to Hell Gate.

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