The JFK Express, advertised as The Train to The Plane, was a limited express service of the New York City Subway, connecting Midtown Manhattan to John F. Kennedy International Airport. It operated between 1978 and 1990. It primarily used R46 subway cars, and operated along the IND Sixth Avenue Line, IND Fulton Street Line, and IND Rockaway Line between 57th Street in Manhattan and Howard Beach–JFK Airport in Queens. Passengers paid extra, premium fares to ride JFK Express trains. Its route bullet was colored turquoise.
The premium fare for the JFK Express was collected by train conductors on board, who punched the tickets that passengers had to purchase prior to boarding. In addition to the conductors, there were transit police officers aboard to provide protection for travelers.
The JFK Express used R46s exclusively for most of its existence, although near its end R44s were used when the R46s began midlife overhauls. The trains were initially three-cars long or 225 feet (69 m) in length. They later were four-cars long or 300 feet (91 m) long, half the length of a typical B Division train. The cars featured luggage racks for airport-bound passengers.
In June 1978, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) announced plans for an "experimental" subway-bus service between Manhattan and JFK Airport. The JFK Express began operation on September 23, 1978 with a three-car train originating at 57th Street. The MTA created several 30-second long television commercials to promote the new service. Train ran daily from 5:00 AM to 1:00 AM on 20 minute headways. The route began at 57th Street and ran express on the IND Sixth Avenue Line to West Fourth Street–Washington Square, where it switched to the IND Eighth Avenue Line and ran express to Jay Street–Borough Hall in Downtown Brooklyn. From that point on, it ran non-stop on the IND Fulton Street Line and IND Rockaway Line to Howard Beach–JFK Airport.
In May 1980, the MTA executive director, John Simpson, recommended that the express train be discontinued, stating that ridership on the line stabilized at 1.3 million yearly riders, and the yearly deficit rose to $2.5 million. In June 1980, members of the MTA board voted to make the JFK Express a permanent service, stating that a mass transit link to Kennedy Airport was necessary. The fare for the service was $3.50 at the time.
In June 1983, the New York City Transit Authority, along with other service changes, planned to change service on the JFK Express. The JFK Express would have been extended to Rockaway Park–Beach 116th Street, and the $5 fare and the special guard would be eliminated, making it like any other subway line. Trains would be 8 cars long instead of 4 cars long, and the headway between trains would be 18 minutes, instead of 20 minutes. The proposal was still being reviewed in January 1984. This proposal never came to fruition.
At times, regular passengers were allowed on the trains and no fares were charged due to disruptions on other services; this included the 1988 closure of the Williamsburg Bridge, after a painter discovered a hole in a girder. At other times, some passengers paid the extra fare to use the JFK Express to reach Aqueduct Racetrack.
In October 1989, the NYCTA proposed eliminating the JFK Express, citing that it had not attracted enough passengers. At the time, 3,200 people were using the train per day, down from the high of between 4,000 and 5,000 riders that used it at the beginning of the service's operation. The executive vice president of the NYCTA, George Miller, said that eliminating the service would save $7 million a year and free 144 transit workers and 12 subway cars for more cost-efficient subway runs. It was determined that 47 percent of the riders of the JFK Express were commuters from Howard Beach and the Rockaways, willing to pay for the premium service. Trains ran every hour.
On October 29, 1989, the IND 63rd Street Line opened and the JFK Express was extended to 21st Street–Queensbridge. However, this extension was short-lived as service was discontinued on April 15, 1990. At the end of service, the fare was $6.75.
Within a few years of its inauguration, the service was being criticized as being a poor use of resources. The JFK Express proved to be unsuccessful, seeing low ridership in part because the service did not actually serve any airline terminals, but rather transferred passengers to a shuttle bus service that was several hundred yards from the station.
Following the discontinuation of the JFK Express, the A train continues to serve Howard Beach–JFK Airport station. The JFK shuttle bus service remained in operation until the AirTrain JFK, a Port Authority of New York and New Jersey-operated people mover system, replaced it on December 17, 2003. The AirTrain JFK also connects with the Long Island Rail Road at Jamaica, and with the E J Z trains subway services to Manhattan at Sutphin Boulevard–Archer Avenue. A current proposal, the Lower Manhattan–Jamaica/JFK Transportation Project, would provide express train service between JFK Airport and Lower Manhattan through Brooklyn. This would be similar to the JFK Express except that the service would be an extension of AirTrain JFK and operate via the LIRR's Atlantic Branch, providing a one-seat ride to the airport terminals.
The following lines were used by the JFK Express service: