Why Did New York’s JFK Airport Struggle to Cope With Its Flight Backlog After the Bomb Cyclone?

Jan 7, 2018

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The New York area is no stranger to snow storms. It doesn’t typically take much of the fluffy white stuff to derail airport operations throughout the Northeast, but airports normally handle snow well and service recovery is generally pretty uneventful. So as this week’s bomb cyclone wrapped up and airlines began to resume service to John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK), what happened was unprecedented in modern airport operations.

The winter storm was more fierce than expected in parts of the region, catching almost all airlines off guard. The wind, more so than the snow, created a situation where the Port Authority’s experienced snow teams simply couldn’t keep up with the snow blowing off of Jamaica Bay, which is not an uncommon problem at JFK. To help prevent long delays, the airport was officially closed on Thursday, with an early afternoon reopening time.

The reopening time was set for well before the bulk of international flights arrive at JFK, so airlines from around the world launched their full daily flight schedule with virtually no cancellations, assuming the airport would reopen on time. They were wrong, and it was a decision that set off a chain reaction of events that would linger for days. As the storm worsened and eventually became a full blown blizzard, the reopening time was pushed back to 8pm, then eventually the airport threw in the towel and reset the opening for 7am on Friday.

But at that point, dozens of aircraft were already well on their way to New York. All they knew was that they would have to land somewhere, but that somewhere was not going to be JFK.

Choosing a diversion destination is not as simple as landing at the nearest airport. Most airlines will look to divert to one of their own hubs if possible. For instance, Delta flights diverted to Detroit (DTW), Minneapolis (MSP), Cincinnati (CVG) and even as far south as Atlanta (ATL). International airlines will attempt to divert to airports where they have existing operations, which ensures that ground handling contracts are in place upon arrival. The list of airports used is long, but Chicago O’Hare (ORD), Washington Dulles (IAD) and Baltimore-Washington (BWI) took the most diversions.

Rather than diverting somewhere in the United States or even Canada, some airlines played it safe and diverted back to their origin. Several flights over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — and already more than halfway to JFK — simply turned around and went back to Europe. That may sound like an outlandish idea, but it proved to be the best possible outcome for their passengers.

Flash forward about a day, when airline crews that had exceeded their legal duty hours on the incoming diverted flights were once again ready to fly. In what almost seemed like an organized airlift, dozens of diverted aircraft all tried to shuttle back to JFK at the same time in order to reset their operations.

This turned out to be an epic mistake. JFK is a bit of an oddity in terms of terminal operations — the six passenger terminals all operate independently, with absolutely no cooperation of any sort. Essentially, each terminal at JFK is its own little fiefdom with separate operations, management and employees. If an airline calls Terminal 7 home, that’s the only terminal it’s allowed to use. Even if Terminal 4 has a dozen empty gates, an airline slated for Terminal 7 may have to wait hours for a gate to open at Terminal 7. Exceptions are generally only made if a flight arrives after the customs hall at its own terminal has closed for the night, which is rare.

Under normal circumstances, JFK’s over-capacity Terminal 1 must perform a delicate balancing act to prevent lengthy cascading delays, an act that fails more often than not. When an entire day’s worth of flights all re-positioned to JFK at the same time, they did so on top of the existing flight schedule.

This essentially created a situation where JFK’s terminals had to handle two days worth of flights compressed into just a few hours, which simply isn’t possible. Aircraft kept arriving at JFK with nowhere to go, leaving air traffic controllers to stash them away on unused runways and taxiways for extremely long periods of time.

Friday night saw the worst of the backup, with an Air China flight waiting more than seven hours for a gate at Terminal 1. Eventually the aircraft was unloaded via airstairs, a process not traditionally utilized at JFK. Saturday was no better, as airlines continued to dispatch flights to JFK as if nothing was wrong. An Aeroflot re-positioning flight from Dulles sat on a runway for nine hours before the crew timed out and requested someone come to pick them up, looking to abandon the aircraft where it stood.

The backup persisted through Saturday morning, finally prompting the Port Authority to step in and request that the FAA forbid arrivals to the overburdened terminals. Every inbound flight was required to call their dispatch centers to confirm that when they landed, there would be a gate available for them.

Additionally, airlines using Terminal 1 and part of Terminal 4 were forbidden from landing until Sunday morning. A Japan Airlines flight that had diverted to Chicago earlier in the day had already re-departed for JFK, but once again had to divert, this time to Boston (BOS). Other flights again had to turn around while over the Atlantic and return to Europe.

As of Sunday, JFK airport still isn’t back to normal, but it’s slowly getting there and a lighter Sunday schedule will help. But what happened at JFK was incredibly frustrating for passengers and airlines alike, and should have been prevented. An airport cannot function properly when divided into six mini airports without even a modicum of cooperation. When it became clear that terminals were becoming overwhelmed, the Port Authority should have quickly stepped in to manage its airport, forcing terminal operators to work together and providing options for stranded passengers to get off aircraft in a reasonable time span. Unfortunately, it waited an entire day to take any action.

As has been shown many times in the past, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey simply does not care for its customers, and would rather blame airlines and terminal operators instead. Airlines do deserve some of the blame for their insistence on trying to operate a full schedule in addition to recovery and re-positioning flights, but a modern airport should be able to accommodate that with ease.

Savvy travelers all know to avoid NYC area airports whenever possible, and this winter storm drove that point home once again.

Featured image by Rebecca Butala How/Getty Images.

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