National News

Hobbled by a Storm, Then Deluged by a Tide of Incoming Flights

Posted January 8, 2018 8:49 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The harsh winter storm had passed. In its aftermath, parts of the airport were overloaded, jammed with planes that had been kept on the ground during the storm. But screens showed bright yellow airplane icons — incoming flights — approaching, with many more on the way.

One by one they landed. Unused runways became parking lots, with planes waiting for gates.

And still they kept coming. Hours and hours passed.

It was the failure to stop them, experts said, that turned a chaotic but manageable winter-storm episode into an airport delay for the ages.

Yet in the complicated contraption that is Kennedy International Airport — which is managed by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the airlines, and the companies subcontracted by the airlines — it was not clear even on Monday, three days after the epic runway traffic jam, who was supposed to have stopped them.

It was the international terminals that were hit hardest, forcing the Port Authority to finally shut down two of them to incoming flights until their occupants could undo the messy knot outside and within.

A rolling cascade of emergencies brought about by human error and winter weather led to the nightmarish long weekend, as thousands of travelers from around the world found themselves trapped. And that was before frigid water from a burst pipe began raining from a ceiling in Terminal 4, pooling amid the luggage of the stranded.

The turmoil was a reminder of the domino effect of air travel, and that the ripples from complications at an airport that is a vital cog in the global travel network can quickly spread across the world.

The Port Authority said an investigation was underway to determine what went wrong. The truth could be weeks away, or more, as the various entities inside Kennedy — the landlord of the airport itself, the companies that move bags and direct air traffic and sell seats on airplanes — are scrutinized. For now, no one has taken full responsibility for the debacle, with the Port Authority pointing at airlines and terminal operators who have said little so far.

But interviews with experts familiar with Kennedy’s operations this weekend, as well as with scores of passengers both inside that jampacked airport and others far away, hint at the complicated story to someday come, and offer a view from within the chaotic scene.

The arrival of a severe winter storm on Thursday was not a surprise.

With a snowstorm ominously described as a bomb cyclone bearing down on the New York area, the Port Authority started warning about airport disruption and flight cancellations on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, as the snow piled up and winds strengthened, the Port Authority announced that Kennedy would temporarily shut down. At 1 p.m., it was telling travelers that it intended to resume flight activity later that day. Around the world, airlines were reading that forecast as a green light to take off for long hauls to New York City. As late as 6:20 p.m., the Port Authority was still sending out tweets that it expected to reopen Kennedy that night. But an hour later, close to 7:30 p.m., the Port Authority decided to keep Kennedy closed until Friday morning. That meant that all of the flights bound for Kennedy had to divert to other airports or turn around.

The sudden, unplanned detouring of all of those planes set off a chain reaction that stretched to various continents and left Kennedy tied in knots for the next few days, with passengers stranded in overcrowded terminals and on planes.

“Virtually no foreign airline canceled any flights into JFK” on Thursday, said Jason Rabinowitz, a freelance aviation blogger who tracked the cascading pileup as it played out. “They all launched their aircraft, but by the time they got halfway over the Atlantic, they found out they couldn’t land at JFK.”

As an example, Rabinowitz cited Iberia Flight 6253, which got halfway to New York from Madrid before making a U-turn and going back to Spain: an eight-hour flight to nowhere.

Norwegian Air Flight 7019 made a similar journey Thursday night en route to New York from France. “That was kind of weird,” said Mona Bismuth, 27, a passenger. “We turned around at the southern tip of Greenland.”

A passenger on a different flight was sent back to Moscow — twice — because of what was happening in New York.

When Kennedy gradually reopened on Friday, the airlines started sending their diverted planes on to Kennedy. The airport’s runways could handle the traffic, but some of its terminals were quickly overwhelmed with planes arriving faster than gates could be cleared for them.

That mismatch continued into Saturday, as the airlines played catch-up on the flights they had sent elsewhere or had canceled. “They all tried to come back to JFK on Saturday at the same time,” Rabinowitz said. The operator of Terminal 1 eventually called the Port Authority for help unloading the planes with portable staircases, but by then some parts of the airport were in virtual gridlock.

“There’s definitely blame to go around,” Rabinowitz said.

Inside Terminal 4, a line of hungry men, women and children like something from a Depression-era newsreel formed outside a Dunkin’ Donuts stand.

“There were queues and queues of people going nowhere,” said Mike Bedigan, 22, of Britain. “People didn’t know what it was they were queuing for.”

Outside was no different, as arriving flights were forced to sit idle on the runways. “We were, like, in a weird little no-go zone,” said Bismuth, after her Norwegian flight from France eventually arrived in New York after having made a U-turn back to Paris. “The crew was exhausted. We were exhausted.”

Another passenger, Eliott Ozeel, 25, landed at Kennedy from France at 10:30 p.m. Friday. He fell asleep while his plane sat on the tarmac, only to wake with the dawn more than six hours later, still there.

In the end, the Port Authority took drastic actions, but Rabinowitz said the agency acted 30 hours too late.

First, the Port Authority ordered that no flights could head to Terminal 1 at Kennedy without an assurance that there would be a gate available, said Rick Cotton, the agency’s executive director. Later on Saturday, the Port Authority ordered Terminal 1 closed to any more flights that day, Cotton said.

Private terminal operators are reluctant to turn away arrivals because they are paid for each flight they accept, Rabinowitz said.

“It’s just strained to the point where it is severely overcapacity,” he said of JFK. “You have the smallest of incidents, and it just backs up for days on a global basis.”

As the international knot of air traffic began to straighten out Sunday, the water pipe burst in Terminal 4, pouring 3 inches of water into parts of the crippled ground-floor arrival area at its southern end. The pipe was not visible from below, and only the cascading water could be seen.

There was more finger pointing. Port Authority officials said Monday that they were continuing to investigate the cause of the leak. They said that the construction and maintenance of the pipe was the responsibility of the private terminal operator.

The pipe has since been repaired. The officials said their response to the burst pipe was absolutely not delayed or affected by stretched manpower from the other problems at the airport. But for the common root cause — the weather — the pipe and the air traffic snafus had nothing to do with each other, a coincidence that drew more widespread attention to both.

Cotton said in an interview on Monday that “what happened over the weekend is unacceptable” and that “fixes need to get put in place.” What those changes should be will be determined by a thorough review of what went wrong, Cotton said. But he added that “what caused the clearest failure and the most prominent need to be addressed is the coordination process between international airlines and the terminal operators in terms of ensuring that there are gates available.”

Cotton noted that the biggest domestic airlines at Kennedy weathered the aftermath of the storm much better than many of the foreign carriers did. Both JetBlue and American operate their own terminals at Kennedy, giving them more control and flexibility in managing their schedules.

Further lending to the overlay of confusion is the organizational design of the airport. Essentially, Kennedy is a necklace of terminals, each one its own fief that handles major elements of air travel independently of the others.

Terminal 1 is a prime example. It is managed by a partnership of four big airlines: Air France, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines and Korean Air. But its gates also provide space for the loading and unloading of planes flown by Aeroflot, Air China, Royal Air Maroc and Turkish Airlines, among others.

The Port Authority generally plays the role of landlord at Kennedy, keeping the runways and roadways cleared and leaving the terminal operators and the airlines to manage their operations. But Cotton said he told the operator of Terminal 4 on Monday that it must improve the way it was handling the rebooking of passengers on three airlines: Emirates, Etihad Airways and Air India.

Having seen “very long lines, very long waits” for those passengers, Cotton said he told the operator “that they need to initiate changes and staff up” to address the problem.

Rabinowitz, the blogger, said part of the problem at Kennedy is that the Port Authority is “so disinvolved” in the airlines’ activity.

“The Port Authority has a very hands-off approach,” he said. “If a plane’s on fire they’ll put the fire out. But they really don’t have much to do with the day-to-day operations.”

Cotton disputed the characterization of the Port Authority as hands-off, saying it was involved in coordinating with airlines and federal regulators. As evidence, he pointed to the actions the agency took on Saturday to bar certain planes from landing at the airport even though it was open.

He said he did not have enough information yet to say whether the Port Authority should have taken those actions sooner.

“Given what happened, changes are needed,” Cotton said. “The notion that this investigation can conclude that no changes are needed seems to me impossible.”

Freezing rain forecast for Monday evening had the potential to cause some more cancellations. The airport was operating close to normal Monday, with the notable exception of some of the international operations at Terminals 1 and 4. Still, officials said, of approximately 600 flights scheduled on Monday, 116 were canceled and an additional 98 had been delayed.

Domestic airlines hoped to reunite all bags at the airport with their owners by the end of Monday. International airlines hope to get all passengers stranded in New York rebooked by the end of the day.

Fewer flights were marked “canceled” on overhead screens Monday afternoon, but for those stranded, moods varied between exhaustion and rage, with little in between.

“We can’t stay!” a customer shouted at a Delta counter, hitting the table and shouting profanities at the attendant. “I have three children in Poland! I have work!”