Delta Air Lines opened a $1.2 billion expansion of terminal 4 at New York's John F. Kennedy (JFK) today, as it begins the slow process of consolidating its operations into one building at the airport.

"The state-of-the-art Terminal 4 facilities have been years in the making and Delta people, global customers and the residents of New York now have the international hub facility that they expect and deserve," says Richard Anderson, chief executive officer of the Atlanta-based SkyTeam alliance member, during an event at JFK. "It's an exciting time at Delta and JFK Terminal 4 is emblematic of the investments we are making in New York and around the world. "

The 32,145 square metre (346,000 square foot) expansion includes the addition of nine new gates and renovation of seven gates on concourse B, which will replace Delta's terminal 3. The ageing facility will be demolished.

The carrier also operates from terminal 2.

The project is the first of what will be a three-phase expansion of terminal 4. Delta and its partners - airport operator the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) and terminal manager JFK International Air Terminal (JFK IAT) - plan to break ground on a $175 million phase two in the coming months.

The 6,968 square metre phase two includes the addition of an 11-gate regional aircraft facility on concourse B.

"We're going to keep investing in New York," says Anderson. "We're doing another $300 million in investment here and one day we want to build the third phase of this facility."

The third phase will allow Delta to consolidate all of its operations in terminal 4, says Gail Grimmett, senior vice-president for New York, on the sidelines of the event. The airline will still operate some select mainline flights from terminal 2 after phase two opens, she explains.

Delta is in discussions with the PANYNJ and JFK IAT regarding the third phase but has yet to determine a timeline the project, she says.

The opening today begins to level the playing field between Delta, American Airlines and United Airlines in terms of terminal facilities at New York's three airports. Terminal 3 at JFK has long been derided a decrepit and functionally obsolete, despite its historical importance as the Pan Am Worldport when it opened in 1960.

United announced at least $150 million in investments to the check-in, gate and baggage systems in terminal C at Newark Liberty International airport on 21 May. The move was seen by many industry followers as an attempt to distract from Delta's terminal 4 opening.

"Like a kid's playground challenge: 'My dog is better than your dog!'" says Robert Mann, a New York-based airline industry analyst with RW Mann & Company, on the competing announcements.

He adds: "We are seeing evidence that consolidation is starting to allow network carriers to reverse a ten-year drought on investment in fleet and facilities, such that they can begin to compete with foreign carriers who continued to invest all along."

Delta is also investing $200 million in terminals C and D at New York's LaGuardia airport, where it opened a hub last year after its slot-swap deal with US Airways closed in December 2011.

American operates from terminal 8 at JFK, which it opened in phases from 2005 to 2008. United operates from British Airways' terminal 7 at the airport.

Delta's expansion to terminal 4 is light and airy - though a far cry from the architecturally inspiring airports being built in Asia and the Gulf - with food and beverage outlets from popular New York eateries, including Blue Smoke and Shake Shack. The new Sky Club is the largest in its system and has the first outdoor Sky Deck that provides travellers with expansive views of the JFK ramp.

"I did need a plane ride to get from the entrance to here today," says US congressman Joseph Crowley, joking about the walk to gate B41 - the last on the concourse - at the event.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news