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

July 10, 2007

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, 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.

FAA Deputy Administrator Bobby Sturgell says the FAA has imposed measures to encourage controllers to run planes closer together. But the plan has become emblematic of the ongoing debate of how to maintain safety while allowing more air traffic.

*Airline competition has helped to clog JFK. During the past two years, Delta Air Lines has sharply increased flights as the number of international flights also has risen.

Officials at JetBlue, the 7-year-old carrier that has become JFK's leading airline, carrying 11.6 million passengers into and out of the airport, have taken the unusual step of endorsing limits on flights because they say that at peak times, airlines are scheduling more flights than JFK can handle.

*Construction to prepare JFK for the mammoth Airbus A380 -- set to begin airline service this year in Asia and Europe -- has blocked key taxiways. That's added to flight delays because controllers can't efficiently move jets from one side of the airport to the other. During the construction, one taxiway was moved and others were reinforced.

The problems illustrate how fragile the aviation system has become at its busiest airports, says John Hansman, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies air traffic.

"A few things start to go wrong, and then it cascades," he says.

In recent months, the problem has prompted a flurry of activity by airlines, the Port Authority and the FAA.

Delta has successfully lobbied the FAA to make more use of JFK's four runways so additional jets can land each hour. The airline industry's Washington trade group, the Air Transport Association, last month demanded that the FAA add flight routes in the New York area. The Port Authority formed a task force to address delays. In response, the FAA has sent a team to New York to study JFK's problems.

"We are putting a lot of focus on it," Sturgell says. "We know it's important to our national system as well as the citizens flying into and out of the New York area."

Sturgell says JFK's problems won't be solved without new technologies the agency plans to introduce in coming decades, such as satellite-based navigation that will allow aircraft to safely fly closer together.

"It speaks to the limitations of the current air traffic system," Sturgell says.

A boost from JetBlue

Built on marshland in Jamaica Bay about 12 miles from Manhattan, JFK originally was known as Idlewild, the name of the golf course that once was on the site.

By the late 1990s, its distinctive terminals had become worn, top carriers such as Pan Am had gone out of business and the bulk of traffic into New York City had moved elsewhere. LaGuardia and Newark both had far more flights.

But in 2000 an upstart airline, JetBlue, saw potential in the underutilized airport and began offering low-cost flights there.

Within three years, it was the airport's top airline, and it has continued to grow. It now has about 344 flights a day.

Other carriers followed JetBlue's growth, particularly Delta. During the past two years, it and its partners nearly doubled the number of daily flights at JFK to 382.

Now JFK handles more flights a day than its New York rivals and has grown at a faster rate since 2000 than any other large U.S. airport, according to FAA data.

JFK is on a pace to handle 460,000 flights this year, 33% more than 2000, the Port Authority says.

'Stacked full of airplanes'

The impact of that growth shows on days such as Monday, June 11.

Late that afternoon, a line of intermittent storms moved up the East Coast, slowing air travel. FAA air traffic managers at the agency's Command Center near Washington, D.C., ordered controllers at JFK to halt most domestic departures but allowed arrivals to continue.

As more and more jets arrived, controllers ran out of places to put them. Barking orders in staccato bursts, they tried to keep taxiways clear by moving arrivals to an unused runway. But the effort couldn't keep the taxiway in front of Delta's terminal clear.

The pilots of Delta Flight 133 from Athens, one of the jets that had been sent to the far side of JFK, radioed shortly after 5:30 p.m. to say the airline was holding taxiway "lima-alpha" open for them so they could reach the terminal. The controller replied that the taxiway was full of planes.

Controller Barrett Byrnes, president of the local controllers union and one of those on duty in the tower that day, says the scene has become typical.

"It's not every night, but it's most nights," Byrnes says. "When you overburden an airport, as delays begin to happen, you are never able to recover from them. Once the delays start, it's over."

Inefficient routes

Former controller Steve Kelley recalls being struck 20 years ago by the inefficient routes that planes in the New York area followed. Little has changed since then.

Nowhere else in the world do so many aircraft converge into such tight confines as New York.

If the weather is bad at JFK, for example, one of the airport's runways is unusable because the route required for a low-visibility approach interferes with flights at other airports. JFK's four long runways could handle more flights, but the area's controllers can't accept more aircraft.

Kelley, who now manages the FAA's effort to redesign flight corridors on the East Coast, says using modern technology such as highly accurate aircraft routes guided by satellite would help reduce delays at JFK and other area airports.

For example, the delays on June 11 were triggered by a few small thunderstorms. One of the features of the FAA's plan would allow planes to use additional routes outside the region, so they would have more paths to fly around storms, Kelley says.

However, the FAA's experience in New York shows it won't be easy to make such changes.

The prospect of rerouting aircraft across the region has created bitter opposition. Public meetings on the plan have been contentious. Virtually no elected official in the region has endorsed the idea.

The FAA has concluded that the number of people affected by noise from aircraft would drop because of plans to keep more planes over the ocean, rivers and highways, but some communities that rarely hear aircraft noise would get more of it.

Area congressmen have asked the Government Accountability Office to study the FAA's plan.

"I'm extremely concerned that this airspace redesign is a colossal mistake," says Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J.

More space between planes

Looming in the background of JFK's delays are disputes between controllers and FAA managers.

Two years ago, the FAA found that controllers at the New York Terminal Radar Approach Control center, which handles aircraft below 18,000 feet in a roughly 50-mile radius around the city, routinely were bringing planes slightly closer together than the rules allowed (typically 3 nautical miles).

The facility's union president, Dean Iacopelli, says that since then, several controllers have been disciplined for minor traffic-directing infractions that previously would not have drawn punishment.

The FAA's move has led controllers to put more space between planes, prompting a decline in capacity at New York's airports, says Tom Bock, the manager of airspace and operational enhancements for the Port Authority.

Iacopelli says controllers are simply trying to follow the directions they are receiving from management. The FAA is investigating ways to allow controllers to squeeze more aircraft together while staying within their guidelines, Sturgell says. The agency recently eased its rules regarding minor infractions.

Byrnes and Iacopelli say declines in staffing at New York facilities also have added to delays. Controllers have had increasingly tense relations with the FAA since it imposed pay cuts last year. The FAA says staffing levels are adequate and that it's hiring more controllers.

Endless wait times

As darkness fell on JFK on June 11, delays continued to stack up.

Some of the storms that blocked domestic routes drifted over the Atlantic Ocean, forcing a halt to departures to Europe.

By evening, every flight leaving JFK was late and some jets sat for hours waiting to leave. One pilot waiting for departure clearance asked the tower how long he should expect to wait.

"If I had that answer, I'm in the wrong job," a controller responded, according to a recording of the conversation provided by "... I couldn't even begin to tell you."

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