At JFK, web of problems tangles gateway to USA; Crowded skies, tension in the tower help fuel flight delays that ripple through aviation system

NEW YORK -- John F. Kennedy International Airport has long been known as the nation's gateway to the world, but by 6 p.m. on a recent Monday it looked more like a dysfunctional parking lot. A conga line of arrivals sat on an unused runway more...


NEW YORK -- John F. Kennedy International Airport has long been known as the nation's gateway to the world, but by 6 p.m. on a recent Monday it looked more like a dysfunctional parking lot.

A conga line of arrivals sat on an unused runway more than a mile from the gates. The main taxiway was clogged by a dozen jets waiting to depart. Another dozen, mostly hulking wide-body arrivals from Europe, were clustered at the northwest corner of the airport -- an area chosen to keep them clear of the growing chaos.

As some jets waited for hours to move, the frustration increased. An unidentified pilot on Comair Flight 5233, which had arrived from Burlington, Vt., about 90 minutes earlier, asked the tower for help getting to his gate because his jet's air conditioner was broken. "Our cabin temperature is getting up into the 90s right now," the pilot said.

"Call your company and tell them to find gates for all those guys in front of you," a controller replied, according to a recording of the conversation provided by LiveATC.net, a website for aviation professionals that monitors air-traffic communications. "I can't move anyone out."

JFK, one of the nation's most storied airports -- and the most popular for flights into and out of this country -- is choking on delays, creating a ripple effect throughout the U.S. aviation system. More than four decades after Eero Saarinen's wing-roofed TWA terminal here helped introduce modern architecture, jetways and other innovations to airports, JFK's terminals often are a crowded mess -- symbolic of how a range of vexing problems in the aviation system come together in New York.

At JFK, increasing competition has fueled a dramatic rise in domestic flights in recent years, putting more stress on the most tangled piece of airspace in the world.

It's an area roughly 20-by-20 miles that sees well over 1 million flights a year, including those passing through nearby LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International airports. JFK handles nearly 400 international flights a day, but domestic flights now outnumber international ones by 2 to 1.

Air traffic analysts and federal officials say JFK and its neighboring airports are examples of what busy hubs could look like in the future. Airports in several metro areas, notably San Francisco, are seeing increased flight delays stemming from congestion.

Through May this year, about four in 10 flights at JFK, LaGuardia and Newark were at least 15 minutes late, the nation's worst delays for the period in the past decade, according to the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

On Feb. 14, an ice storm crippled JFK, which led JetBlue Airways to strand aircraft on the ground for up to 10 hours in an incident that drew national attention to airlines' struggles with delays.

A USA TODAY examination of the reasons behind the delays at JFK finds several factors, some of them entrenched and difficult to change:

*The patchwork of air routes available to jets over New York, last updated 20 years ago, requires controllers to put aircrafts in holding patterns nearly every day because they simply run out of room. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is trying to revamp the flight lanes, but the effort faces intense opposition from local communities concerned about increasing noise in several areas. Opposition could delay the FAA's effort for years.

*Tension between the FAA and its controllers heightens the delays. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages the region's airports, has found that fewer aircraft have reached runways each hour in recent years because controllers have added more space between planes than required.

The increased spacing comes in the wake of a dispute between the controllers union and the FAA over how to discipline controllers who allow planes to get too close to one another.

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