National News

After the Storm, Port Authority Plots Changes at JFK Airport

Posted January 18, 2018 7:39 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey revealed on Thursday the first steps it had taken to prevent a recurrence of the sort of cascading chaos at Kennedy Airport that followed a severe winter storm two weeks ago.

The agency, which operates Kennedy and the two other major airports that serve New York City, said it had directed airport and airline officials to meet and share information and resources during any significant storm. It also said it would order airlines to manage the rate of incoming planes so that none of them will sit on the ground for more than 90 minutes before reaching a gate.

Those changes were among the interim measures the Port Authority outlined in advance of an investigation that will be led by Ray LaHood, the former transportation secretary. Rick Cotton, executive director of the Port Authority, said LaHood would issue a report in three to four months that would delve into all of the problems at Kennedy and how to address them.

“The system is broken,” Cotton said, referring to Kennedy Airport. “It is antiquated at JFK.”

Cotton said the root of much of the trouble is inadequate technology that would take time and money to upgrade. Poor communications between airlines and terminal operators compounded the effects the storm had on airport operations, he said.

But Cotton said the Port Authority was “not stepping away from responsibility.” Instead, it was making changes now while awaiting the recommendations of LaHood, who is now a senior policy adviser to the DLA Piper law firm.

LaHood said his team would look at everything and talk to everyone, including airline and airport employees and passengers. “We will get to the bottom of this,” he said.

LaHood said he understood how frustrated many travelers were, especially those who had not been reunited with their luggage for a week or more. He admitted that he had received a few emails from people asking if he could help them find their bags. He said he could not.

One of the investigators’ first interviews will be with the Federal Aviation Administration next week, LaHood said. The FAA sent a letter this week to Kennedy’s managers demanding an explanation of how they handled the removal of snow and ice during and after the storm, which struck on Jan. 4.

Keeping the runways clear is the Port Authority’s job. But the big problems that weekend emanated from terminals shared by foreign airlines and operated by private companies.

The airlines and terminal operators are responsible for getting planes to and from gates to load and unload passengers and luggage. Most of them hire contractors to handle the bags and clean and stock the planes.

At Terminal 1, which is shared by a roster of foreign carriers, the workers on the ground could not keep pace with the steady flow of arrivals. The frigid weather also disabled some equipment, said Huntley Lawrence, the Port Authority’s director of aviation.

Planes were stuck between the runways and the terminal for hours before the Port Authority was called in to rescue the passengers with buses. Many of those passengers wound up leaving the airport without their bags.

To add mishap to misery, a water main burst in the ceiling of Terminal 4 on Jan. 7, gushing water through an arrivals area still crowded with stranded travelers. As a response, Cotton said the Port Authority had ordered all the terminal owners and operators to inspect all of their pipes and plumbing to make sure that it is protected from extreme weather.

Cotton said there had been no management changes at the Port Authority or at Kennedy. He said he was not aware of any changes at airlines or terminal operators either.

“There are plenty of failures to go around, and I think everyone has acknowledged that,” Cotton said. He said the airlines and terminal operators had been very cooperative and had willingly agreed to a new spirit of mutual aid.

Lawrence said the newly created emergency operations center had been convened for two minor storms in the two weeks since the chaos. He said it was the first to be set up for storms at Kennedy, though he said Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey has had one.

Lawrence said that about 100 pieces of luggage still had not been returned to their owners, a failure Cotton called “unconscionable.”

After apologizing again for the collective lapses, Cotton promised improvement. “We simply have to assure that JFK performs better and performs better starting now,” he said.