The John F. Kennedy International Air Terminal (JFKIAT) was founded in 1997 when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey sought a public/private partnership for the existing International Arrivals Building (IAB), which opened in 1957 to accommodate propeller-driven aircraft. Investment banking firm Lehman Brothers, real estate developer LCOR, Inc., Schiphol USA Inc. (an affiliate of Amsterdam-based Royal Schiphol Group, a leading airport operator), teamed up and were rewarded the lease to redevelop the IAB, which opened in May 2001 as Terminal 4 (T4) after undergoing a $1.4 billion redevelopment that transformed the former IAB into a modern and efficient air terminal.
JFKIAT T4 is the largest terminal at JFK Airport and the first privately operated terminal in the United States. Terminal 4 covers nearly two million square feet, with over 120,000 square feet of retail and restaurants, and has 12,000 employees. In the 22 years since T4’s opening, a great deal of development has happened, and Schiphol USA has overseen its growth in size and passenger volume, which today serves more than 21 million passengers each year.
Roel Huinink is the president and CEO of JFKIAT, and he leads Terminal 4’s dedicated management team of some 120 people. His responsibility is to manage, develop and operate T4 as the company’s sole business.
A native of the Netherlands, Huinink attended Delft University of Technology, where he earned a Master’s Degree in mechanical engineering. In the mid-1990s, while he worked in the offshoring field, it was announced that the Brent Spar oil platform, operated by Shell Oil UK, was of no further value and would be sunk into the North Sea. Strong opposition from environmental groups ensued. “Everybody thought about how these platforms could be placed at sea, but nobody thought about how to remove them,” said Huinink. Then, as he worked in the research and development department of the offshoring company, an entrepreneur came up with a viable option to develop an entirely new ship that could lift the oil platform at sea and transport it to shore to decommission it there. Huinink and his colleagues helped to develop the ship, which was three to four times cheaper than other methods and was ultimately an effective, cost-saving remediation.
Huinink recalls this as quite an exciting project that he really liked working on and learned a lot from, but he also quickly knew that even though he was educated as a mechanical engineer, it was not his passion.
As he grew up, Roel’s father traveled a lot and flew regularly out of Amsterdam Airport. He often picked up his dad there and found that there was always something inside him that sparked an interest in airports. With this realization, he decided to pursue a management position at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport. He started there in 1998 and worked in various functions, such as technical and commercial operations, until 2011.
An opportunity later arrived to work for Swedish airports and the Arlanda Schiphol Development Co. (ASDC) in a joint venture running their commercial business and doing retail development, including food and beverage management. Though not the retailer itself, Huinink decided what concepts to bring in and market to enhance the passenger experience. After moving his family to Stockholm, they lived there for 3 ½ years, and he joined an airport duty-free fashion retailer in Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and the UK and became the CEO running the company for another 3 ½ years based in Oslo, Norway.
After living in Scandinavia for seven years, the Huinink’s moved back to the Netherlands so their oldest son could attend high school there. Roel got an assignment to sell a retail business from an organization similar to the AAA, which was short-lived after he received a call from Schiphol asking him if he was interested in working at JFK International Airport. He spoke to his wife about the offer to work in New York City at one of the busiest and most well-known airports in the world, and five months later, they were living in New York, where he now feels honored to serve as the president and CEO of JFKIAT’s T4.
Prior to Huinink’s appointment as CEO, a Phase 1 expansion at JFKIAT was completed in 2013 that added nine new gates, and in 2015 Phase 2 of the expansion added 11 new gates to accommodate Delta’s regional jets at the time the airline moved into T4 from Terminal 3. Today Delta is JFKIAT’s biggest partner, running approximately 65% of the traffic out of T4, domestic and international. In addition, T4 currently serves 24 other international carriers.
“We are a small but mighty company,” said Huinink during a recent interview with Metropolitan Airport News. “Typically, we are a management company whose strategy is to help source as much activity as we can, and to find strong partners to really work with us. “With every activity that we do as a terminal operator, we try to find the best partners, whether that’s in janitorial services, maintenance, security, technology, or otherwise.”
When asked what the biggest challenges, complexities, and priorities are for him and his team in operating T4, Huinink remembered a peak day in 2019 when T4 served 76,000 passengers in a single day, adding, “This year it might go up to 90,000 passengers a day.”
He pointed out the top priorities in the management and operation of the terminal, stressing how imperative it is to ensure that everyone who comes to work or travels through the facility does so safely. “That is something we take pride in and that we are all laser-focused on. We start our meetings with a safety moment to really talk about and share the safety measures that we must achieve every day. In aviation, especially, safety is most important, as is ensuring that each and every passenger is treated equally as they pass through the facility.”
“When people travel through airports they may be somewhat stressed about where to go, check-in, about the queue at security, or how long it will take to get where they need to be, and whether their plane is on time,” said Huinink, “Our goal is to make the process as efficient as possible and that the basics are right, which sounds easy, but it never is, because it constantly asks of the whole team to focus on making our guest’s passage through the terminal a seamless process; making sure baggage is on the airplane; meeting the airline’s bottom line for an on-time departure, and a memorable experience when they leave. With 90,000 people a day, it is not an easy task.”
A Memorable Experience
One of the many significant initiatives to make travel through T4 a memorable experience is to create extraordinary activities for passengers by bringing art, music, local culture, and community in, conveying that this is New York, not just a place in an airport somewhere, but rather ’a truly New York airport”. Food and beverage offerings and events are very much in line with that.
Last year, ahead of Veteran’s Day, T4 set the stage for a powerful musical performance spotlighting veterans at the terminal and their journeys. The event marked the beginning of a special collaboration between JFKIAT and CreatiVets, an organization that offers opportunities for relief and healing for veterans through the use of various forms of art.
Efficiency & Sustainability
In terms of sustainability, JFKIAT is dedicated to environmental improvements that foster a sustainable future and lead to social and economic improvements within the terminal and airport community. “This has always been a key pillar for JFKIAT. We obviously have a lot of European groups, and many of them on the forefront of sustainability. I’m glad to see that the Port Authority has embraced the Paris Climate Accord and that sustainability is becoming more prominent in the United States,” said Huinink. “We are proud to have started that about a decade ago and we are really focused on energy efficiency, water conservation, waste management, recycling, the indoor quality of environment, and innovation.”
In 2017 JFKIAT received the first LEED Gold Certification for operation and maintenance. “We set the bar pretty high in 2017, and my predecessor drove that,” said Huinink. When he joined JFKIAT in 2018, Huinink stressed that he wanted to reach higher. “It doesn’t come automatically. You need to be focused on efficiency and operation. If you have sustainability as a side activity, you will not be able to really reduce the carbon footprint and emissions in the building.” So Huinink put together a team, and they worked hard on the next level of certification, LEED Platinum Certification, which T4 was granted last year through a number of initiatives that helped that. Some of the initiatives include using AI technology that educates the traveling public about the ‘how to’ of recycling, a compost program, the launch of hybrid or electric vehicles and buses, and implementing electric charging points. “It’s a journey that is important toward sustainability, and you must think big and take small steps. Small steps lead to big advances. We are hyper-focused on energy efficiency and we are constantly investing in the building and improving the efficiency of the equipment, because the building is 20 years old now, and back in the day it was not built with sustainability in mind. Our team understands that they need to make all the efforts they can to achieve a net-zero operation. With these goals and initiatives, we are drastically able to reduce the impact,” said Huinink, adding, “I could talk about sustainability for hours. A few of T4’s initiatives are on a dedicated webpage which spotlights their sustainability.”
While JFKIAT strives to make an impact in the industry, the operator of T4 also believes in making an impact on their employees by providing a welcoming and rewarding environment for every member of the T4 team. “It is very important as a company that we take responsibility for the health and safety of staff members. Part of that is that staff is well trained; that they are given a good education and good benefits. Giving staff the opportunity to grow in their roles, not only in compensation but in terms of learning experience and leadership that also offers them a career.” Huinink remains focused on that, and for him, it is non-negotiable. “I may be the CEO of the company, but I cannot run this business alone. We need to be a team. If we focus on the T4 community, it prides me as I walk around the terminal to see that people are proud to work here, that they feel part of a family in the T4 community.”
A Team Experience
JFKIAT holds a quarterly employee breakfast, where employees nominated through the Port Authority’s We Soar program are brought together, recognized, and given a small token of appreciation. Their pictures are taken and placed in the recently opened T4 “Hall of Greats”. Members of the T4 community are also regularly spotlighted in the T4 newsletter to really promote them for what they do.
One of Huinink’s favorite days of the year takes place in August when JFKIAT hosts a big Employee Appreciation Day for T4 staff which approximately 4,000 to 5,000 people attend. This special day took place even through COVID, with social distancing. “It was so important to continue it, because our staff was still there working, and we needed to show our appreciation for them.”
Charitable initiatives and community outreach are one of JFKIAT’s many top priorities. “We are a Queens-based business, and our staff of 10,000 -12,000 people in the terminal are predominantly Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island-based. Our partners are here. So, we really want to take responsibility for the local community around us.” In 2021 JFKIAT launched the 4GOOD Program, which encourages social change, environmental stewardship, charity and giving back to the community. In 2022 over $150,000 was donated to 15 organizations ($10,000 each) that support the Queens community.
The Future at T4
With the closing of Terminal 2, Delta operations are now consolidated at T4. During this massive undertaking, ten additional gates were built in 14 months in conjunction with T4’s partner, Delta, who worked closely with the JFKIAT team.
As JFK is being redeveloped, there is a strong push from local and state politicians and the Port Authority to offer opportunities to minorities and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE). “With all our contracts, we really want to give MWBEs the opportunity to work with us and be part of it,” stated Huinink.
Future plans at the terminal include the addition of new lounges, Delta premium lounges, redevelopment of the retail food and beverage offerings, the renovation of all restrooms, new technology to make things easier for passengers to check themselves in at kiosks, the implementation of self-service bag drops. “That is all important to passengers and airlines. With the massive redevelopment of the entire airport and the challenges ahead, the Port Authority is hyper-focused on assuring that operations can continue efficiently. We are working very closely with the Port Authority police, the airlines, and the redevelopers to really put in place a lot of mitigation to ensure that traffic can keep flowing. Because if people arrive at the airport stressed, it is not going to be helpful for the rest of their journey – so we need to assure that the process is right.”
Although Roel Huinink is not an engineer at T4, with his prior history as one, and his vast experience with airport management and operations – he understands how it all works, along with the complexities of managing an airport terminal. As a result, he can have knowledgeable conversations with his T4 team about the daily measures to take and their sustainability, and the value of innovative, forward-thinking initiatives that will assure that T4 is a terminal that will offer a safe, positive and memorable experience for each and everyone who passes through it.