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opinion

Gus Carlson is a New York-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

New York City’s LaGuardia Airport may be the only thing Donald Trump and Joe Biden ever agreed on, both likening it to a “Third World country.” Even the head of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which oversees the area’s transportation hubs, called it an “embarrassment.”

Long-time Canadian travellers can relate. The old Air Canada gate waiting area was cramped and dingy, the restrooms so decrepit that only the brave and the desperate used them.

The cheery “Welcome to New York” sign was acrid icing on the cake. It should have read, “fuggedaboudit.”

For many Canadian flyers, LaGuardia memories are like scenes from a David Cronenberg film. The hub, built in 1939, had fallen into serious disrepair in recent years. Its undersized and outdated facilities served more than 31 million travellers in 2019, before COVID-19 cut that to about six million in 2020.

“If I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you’d think, ‘I must be in a Third World country,’” Mr. Biden, then U.S. vice-president, said in 2014. In a U.S. presidential candidates’ debate in September, 2016, Mr. Trump, a New Yorker whose private Boeing 757 jet is often parked on the LaGuardia tarmac, echoed the sentiment. “Our airports are like from a Third World country,” he said, calling out LaGuardia, the two other New York-area hubs – JFK and Newark – as well as Los Angeles International.

Since then, things have changed – a lot, and for the better. Beginning in 2016, LaGuardia has been undergoing a multibillion-dollar makeover, including a sweeping $4-billion beautification of Terminal B, used by Air Canada, and a similar transformation of Terminal C, used by WestJet. The entire project, one of the largest public-private partnerships in U.S. history and the largest in American aviation, is scheduled for completion next year.

Canadians who saw the renovations in progress before COVID-19 restricted cross-border air travel in the spring of 2020 got a glimpse of the future. Wide-open spaces, soaring ceilings, huge windows, comfortable gate areas, large (and clean) restrooms, a variety of restaurants, bars and shops, and art installations that would inspire even the most hardened traveller.

So transformational was the redo, one incoming Toronto passenger expecting the old environs stopped abruptly when he emerged from the jetway into the bright, airy new space for the first time, thinking he had arrived at the wrong airport.

But those who used LaGuardia in the months before the pandemic lockdowns also experienced the downside of the massive renovation: traffic, impossible even by New York standards. The ever-shifting makeshift labyrinth of roads in and around the airport was a spaghetti mess. The trip from midtown Manhattan, which usually takes 30-40 minutes, could take up to two hours – or more. At the height of construction, it was not uncommon to see travellers, with bags in tow, running between long lines of stopped traffic toward the terminals.

Getting out of the airport was no picnic, either. The usual curbside drop-offs on the Departures levels and pickups at Arrivals were restricted. Waiting areas for taxis and car services were a crowded shuttle bus or long hike away.

The good news is that over the past 18 months, many of those issues have been addressed. Even though construction continues, causing periodic traffic snarls, drop-offs and pickups at Terminal B, for example, are near normal. Taxis and car services are typically only steps away from the terminal exits. There is also a plan for a rail line from LaGuardia into the city.

While LaGuardia has new treats, there are also a few tricks Canadians need to know.

Jim Whitney, a Toronto toy company executive who recently flew Air Canada round-trip from Toronto Pearson to LaGuardia for a five-day stay in New York, said cross-border testing protocols and documentation can be complicated – and costly – so preparedness is essential.

On the outbound side, he uploaded results of his antigen test to the Air Canada website in advance. He arrived at Pearson three hours early, with his U.S. passenger attestation document signed and in his hand. His Ontario Ministry of Health vaccination receipts were downloaded on his phone and ready for presentation. In all, he said, being that organized, the current reality of fewer than usual travellers to New York, and the helpfulness of Air Canada staff made the pre-flight experience much better than expected.

On the New York side, the logistics were more challenging. To comply with the 72-hour pre-flight testing requirement for his return, Mr. Whitney had to find a testing centre that would complete a rapid PCR test. Many U.S. clinics offer regular PCR tests, but results are not available for three to five days – a timeline that would have extended past his departure date. To comply, he got a rapid test, with results e-mailed to him within an hour.

Before returning to Pearson, he downloaded the federal government’s ArriveCAN app, which allows travellers to upload test results and proof of vaccination so a digital receipt can be generated for Canadian border agents. He said having the app loaded with his passport and flight information streamlined re-entry. A flash of his confirmation code to the customs officer and he was on his way.

But there was a cost. Testing on both sides of the border, including the US$250 rapid test in New York, ran to more than $350. Had he opted for COVID travel insurance, the total would have been close to $400 – a stiff add-on to the standard economy-class round-trip ticket between Pearson and LaGuardia, which runs about $550.

So, as pleasant as it was for this executive to experience all the new LaGuardia had to offer, he warns Canadian travellers to prepare for a lot of pandemic-related paperwork – and urges them to do the necessary homework in advance.

And bring money. In the pandemic era of international travel, forewarned (and fore-capitalized) is forearmed.

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