2019 Queens Courier Person of the Year: Rick Cotton, Port Authority boss, helping the airports soar

Photo: Jenna Bagcal/QNS

Rick Cotton has worn several leadership hats throughout his career before becoming the executive director of The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey in 2017.

In the past, he has been general counsel for NBC Universal as well as Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Special Counsellor for Interagency Initiatives, which prompted the governor to dub Cotton the “czar of infrastructure.”

Now, The Queens Courier’s Person of the Year has taken on the mammoth challenge of transforming two of New York City’s outdated airports, LaGuardia and JFK, into state-of-the-art facilities reflective of 21st-century modern standards.

The airports have long been a subject of heavy criticism, eliciting news stories with titles like “New York’s Three Airports: Bottom of the Heap.” Back in 2014, former Vice President Joe Biden was quoted at a speech in Philadelphia comparing LaGuardia Airport to “some third-world country.”

When he assumed his current role in 2017, Cotton told The New York Times that “this region deserves to have world-class infrastructure” — comments that he’s now backing up with action.

When The Courier visited Cotton’s main offices at 4 World Trade Center in Manhattan, he spoke of the progress that has been made with the airports, particularly the $8 billion redevelopment of LaGuardia that he called a “mammoth effort.”

“It is building the first new airport in the United States in 25 years and it entails demolishing every single passenger facility with the exception of the landmarked Marine Air Terminal,” said Cotton. “And then it involves rebuilding 2.7 million square feet of new terminal passenger facilities running all the way from the western end of the airport through the eastern end.”

Cotton shared that the airport will feature two major new arrival and departure halls, a central connecting arrival and departure hall and six new concourses. In addition to the new “integrated design” Cotton said that the entire airport will move “hundreds of feet closer” to the Grand Central Parkway to expand the aircraft taxi area.

“We’re adding enormously to the aircraft taxi area so that airplanes will always have much easier ways to get out from the gate. The goal in creating the expanded aircraft taxi area is to reduce the gate delays which are so common at LaGuardia today,” said Cotton.

He added that this change would allow for all planes to have two options to exit their gate instead of waiting for other airplanes to move out of the way.

On Jan. 2, The Courier and QNS.com had the opportunity to tour the state-of-the-art corridor in LaGuardia Airport’s Terminal B, which opened to the public on Dec. 1. At the grand opening, Governor Andrew Cuomo joined representatives from the Port Authority and LaGuardia Gateway Partners to unveil the new concourse that would serve customers flying Air Canada, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines.

The 18-gate concourse features 55-foot ceilings, natural light, a green park-inspired area, ample seating and New York-based eateries like Shake Shack and Chef Scott Conant’s Osteria Fusco.

Before Cotton become the head of some of New York and New Jersey’s most important infrastructure projects, he spent a total of 25 years at NBC Universal including 20 years as executive vice president and general counsel and four years as president and CEO of CNBC Europe in London.

During his time at NBC, Cotton was responsible for “overseeing all the lawyers and all of the legal work for the various parts of NBC” as well as overseeing anything that needed legal advice from corporate acquisitions to libel suits.

“In addition, in the world of government relations, I was responsible for overseeing all interactions with government authorities and really responsible for all of the regulatory compliance and regulatory policy issues that affected the media business,” Cotton added.

In 2014, he retired from NBC at the same time that Cuomo had been re-elected for his second term as governor.

“The opportunity to work for him in the world of state government was very attractive to me. So in the beginning of 2015 I went to work for Governor Cuomo in his office and wound up being the point person for his major downstate infrastructure projects,” said Cotton, who would go on to hold that position for two and a half years.

These projects included the Moynihan Train Hall and Penn-Farley Complex, the new Tappan Zee Bridge, the expansion of the Javits Center and the MTA’s Second Avenue Subway project. During that time, Cotton had also been working on improvements to both LaGuardia and JFK airports per the governor’s reconstruction plans.

Cotton was born on the South Side of Chicago to his parents Sylvia and Eugene Cotton. His mother was the founder of the nonprofit organization Illinois Action for Children, which is dedicated to providing medical and educational support to children and their families. His father was a labor lawyer who notably served as general counsel for the United Packinghouse Workers of America starting in 1948.

Cotton earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University and a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School. Subsequently, he became the clerk for Associate Justice William Brennan Jr. on the Supreme Court from 1970 to 1971.

His first foray working in government came when he worked for Cabinet Secretary Joseph Califano Jr. as Executive Secretary to the Department at the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He also served as the Special Assistant for Renewable Energy to Deputy Secretary of Energy John Sawhill at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Those who have worked with Cotton in the past shared their endless praises for the visionary leader commenting on his ability to get things done and become ingrained in the communities in which he has worked.

Queens Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas Grech worked with Cotton during the groundbreaking of the TWA Hotel at JFK in December 2016.

“Due to the hard work of Rick Cotton to help streamline the process, the TWA Hotel is a reality. Rick was instrumental in bringing that project to fruition,” said Grech.

The hotel is set to open in spring of 2019 will be the “first on-campus hotel” at the airport. Some of its features include over 500 guest rooms, 40,000 square feet of event space, bars and restaurants and a 10,000-square-foot outdoor observation deck where guests can see planes taking off and landing.

Grech also got the opportunity to work with Cotton when he was chosen to be the a co-chair of A Better Way to LGA, “a diverse coalition of community members, economic development groups, transportation advocates, civic stakeholders and local business leaders” in support of the LaGuardia AirTrain project.

“I was honored to be asked to be one of the co-chairs for the LaGuardia AirTrain project. Rick Cotton is a visionary in getting the projects approved and the process started. The businesses and people of Queens owe him a debt of gratitude for the number of projects to be completed over the next few years,” shared Grech.

Congressman Gregory Meeks echoed these positive sentiments toward Cotton, having had the opportunity to work with the executive director on the redevelopment of JFK airport. Meeks currently serves as co-chair of the JFK Redevelopment Community Advisory Council alongside Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.

Though JFK’s $13 billion redevelopment is still in its early stages, the committee met this past October for their first community advisory meeting in order to get proper community input as well as discussing the impacts of the project on the surrounding community.

Meeks shared that Cotton made sure that both he and the Port Authority were “part of the community” by involving as many community members, politicians and activists who were closely affected by the project.

“I love working with Rick Cotton. He’s an honest man, he’s a straightforward man and a man who keeps his word,” said Meeks.