JFK's Airport Dentist Braces for Change

Dr. Robert Trager is a longtime dentist with an office at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Dr. Robert Trager is a longtime dentist with an office at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Photo: Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

Robert Trager has owned the same dental practice for about three decades. He has replaced crowns, filled cavities and comforted scores of anxious patients in his chairs, just like a regular dentist. Unlike a regular dentist, he’s based in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Being an airport dentist is, oftentimes, an unusual drill. Some patients, no matter how serious their dental emergencies, can’t get over that the practice even exists.

Dr. Robert Trager ENLARGE
Dr. Robert Trager

“I was shocked,” said Karen Eichbauer, a retired librarian who recently lost a crown to a fish dinner in Detroit just before a layover at JFK. “What are the chances of there being a dentist right on the grounds like that?” She got her crown glued back on in time to catch a flight to Israel.

At various times, Dr. Trager has been called to help patch up two children who banged up their teeth while horsing around on a luggage carousel, and to use his X-ray machine to help immigration authorities determine the ages of people seeking asylum. Over the years, he has picked up bits and pieces of languages from German to Chinese, from basic greetings and goodbyes to how to tell people to open their mouths. “If you can at least greet them in their language,” he explains, “it makes them more relaxed.”

In a bid to promote the practice to airport workers, who make up the bulk of his patients, Dr. Trager printed up fliers with what is, arguably the greatest slogan in the history of dental marketing: “Join The Smile High Club.”

Passengers and airport workers are directed to Dr. Trager’s office at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.
Passengers and airport workers are directed to Dr. Trager’s office at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Photo: Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

The dental office at JFK dates back to at least the 1970s. When Dr. Trager, now 76 years old, took it over in the mid-1980s, it was accompanied by a handful of other essential services, among them a barber shop, a florist and a pharmacy. In 1991 he opened another office in Terminal B of nearby La Guardia Airport.

Over the years, he has seen airlines including Pan Am and TWA fade away, replaced by upstarts such as JetBlue. Computers have allowed airlines to fill nearly every seat, while the threat of terrorism has added stress and long waits. “It was more relaxed and accommodating,” Dr. Trager said of the days when he started out. “There weren’t as many restrictions. … Now you have to look over your shoulder for everything.”

His practice’s sweet spot is the routine business he gets from airport workers, along with airline-crew members who stop in for checkups between flights. Serving travelers and airport employees, he came to see himself as something of a small-town dentist. JFK, after all, sprawls over 4,930 acres, with about 37,000 workers.

Before JFK renovated the old International Arrivals Building, now known as Terminal 4, in 2001, Dr. Trager says there was a push to put his office and others after the security checkpoints, where passengers spent time waiting for flights. He worried this would hurt his walk-in business, so he moved to a single-story structure at JFK’s administration building, a short drive from the terminals or airport’s train station. His office is down a hall from where airport workers report for drug testing.

After the move, worried his business would dry up, he lobbied to get his practice listed on signs of airport services. One says: “JFK Dentist.”

Those signs were all Claus Kohlenberger needed to become a patient. While eating lunch in New York this spring, the Austrian businessman chipped his tooth, lost a filling and began to despair over finding a dentist. “The whole world collapsed just for a moment,” he said.

Remembering the sign, Mr. Kohlenberger, president of an airport-retail company that owns a stake in a chocolate store at JFK, called Dr. Trager, who had him in a dental chair in 15 minutes. Mr. Kohlenberger says they joked about paying his bill in chocolate. He later brought the dentist chocolates as a thank-you.

Today, airports have taken on a different vibe with food courts, wine bars, massage rooms and movie theaters. Flights have changed, too. As flight attendants dispense fewer free treats, Dr. Trager has seen an uptick in patients undone by peanuts. “They’re hungry, they crunch down,” he said. “The next thing you know they dislodge a filling.”

Dr. Trager is a regular at airport managers’ meetings, where his unsolicited recommendations include offering off-track betting inside the terminals and installing a kiosk that sells tickets to baseball games and Broadway shows. He is an advocate of letting airline employees put passengers’ luggage into the overhead bins before they board.

Dr. Trager started out at the airport about three decades ago.
Dr. Trager started out at the airport about three decades ago. Photo: Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

“More than one operations or airline person told him they wouldn’t try to fix teeth if he wouldn’t try to run the airport,” said a former official for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates JFK.

Al Graser, a former JFK general manager and longtime Dr. Trager patient, has kinder words about the dentist’s ideas. “The practicality of them may suffer at times, but they’re always welcome,” he says.

Dr. Trager acknowledges he is offering a layperson’s advice. “As a consumer, I may see things a little bit differently,” he said.

Once a flight attendant named Bonnye broke a tooth when a baggage-area door swung open and hit her in the face. He fixed her tooth. Now they are married.

Ms. Trager has since joined the practice. She pulls triple duty as an office manager, dental assistant and patient chauffeur.

“I’m here in New York, and I don’t know anybody, and she just picked me up,” said Atlanta resident Bill Sargent, who had a filling fall out this year while on a layover at JFK before a flight to the Philippines.

After about three decades, Dr. Trager is looking to sell his practice, perhaps to teach dentistry part-time and enjoy more time playing tennis on nearby Long Island, where he lives. He wants his business to go to someone with a small practice who will continue to be part of the airport community and its unusual fabric.

“I have an image and a legacy,” he said.

Write to Andrew Tangel at [email protected]


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