The massive delays announced last week at Kennedy Airport were just the beginning.
Flights to and from the airport have surged 27 percent in the first quarter of this year and are on track to continue to increase.
The soaring volume has pushed Kennedy to a record 104,500 flights through March 31 - up from 82,000 over the same period last year - and authorities warn that the peak travel season starting in July could swamp them even more.
Already 33 percent of all flights at the airport were held up during the first quarter of 2007, federal transportation statistics show.
"There are more people flying than ever before," said Pasquale DiFulco, a spokesman for the Port Authority, which runs the airport. "We're doing numbers we've never seen. And we're seeing delays at JFK we've never seen before."
The authority has put together a special task force to deal with what they expect to be a congestion nightmare.
The runaway growth at Kennedy began in January, when a federal restriction on flights between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. was lifted at the airport.
FAA rules had allowed only a set number of flights per hour at airports nationwide after Congress passed new regulations in 2000.
Some were later removed to increase competition among airlines. The Kennedy limits came off five months ago following millions of dollars of improvements at the airport.
The impact was immediate.
Airlines began packing flights during those hours, led by JetBlue, Kennedy's busiest carrier, which handled 12.2 million flights nationally in the last 12 months ending in March, DiFulco said.
On June 12, for example, 588 planes landed or took off at Kennedy between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., or one every 36 seconds, he said. The figure was 23 percent more than on June 12, 2006, when 477 flights came through the airport.
Meanwhile, La Guardia and Newark each saw a dip of about 1 percent each in the number of flights.
Delays at all airports are through the roof.
"If an airport is scheduled at maximum capacity all day, and you have delays at any time, you can never recover from it," said John Hansman, director of MIT's International Center for Air Transportation.
The pile-up of planes has alarmed air-traffic controllers.
"You're talking about explosive growth in travel at the airport, and there are fewer controllers," said Dave Church, a spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
He noted that Kennedy has 28 fully certified controllers, but said it should have 40.
"They're short-staffed, and so they're forced to handle quite a bit. They're doing absolutely everything they can to keep things safe," Church said.
Even the Port Authority expressed concern.
"The margin for error shrinks considerably," DiFulco said.
Already this year there have been seven near-collisions, defined as two planes coming within 500 feet of each other, as The Post reported exclusively last week.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Wolff with Post Wire Services
27% increase in number of flights at JFK in first quarter of 2007
Over the same period, the local airports had high rates of cancellations and delays:
JFK 33% 4.8%
LAG 30% 6%
NEW 35% 4.6%
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