JFK Airport Hobbled by Water Main Break, 'Perfect Storm'

by Richard D'Ambrosio
JFK Airport Hobbled by Water Main Break, 'Perfect Storm'

JFK Terminal 4. Photo: littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock.com


Bitter cold temperatures this weekend toyed with airport ground equipment, water mains and aircrafts, tossing flight schedules out the window, as more than 10,000 flights were delayed over two days.

The scene at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport Saturday was chaotic as 83 percent of the flights there were delayed and 17 percent of flights were canceled, according to FlightAware, the airline monitoring site. Things improved marginally Sunday, when only 81 percent of the flights were delayed and 13 percent of flights were canceled.

On Saturday, the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey said on its official Twitter account that it was limiting the arrival of flights into JFK Airport “until there are adequate gates available to handle the backlog of flights due to recovery of flight schedules after Thursday’s storm.”

On its Twitter feed Sunday, the Port Authority said that Saturday's “extreme cold, amid the ongoing recovery from Thursday's storm, created a cascading series of issues for the airlines and terminal operators.” Even the airport’s AirTrain rail shuttle was shut down temporarily.

For example, the Twitter account for Flightradar24‏ said that Norwegian flight DY7015, arriving from London’s Gatwick Airport on Jan. 6, landed at 11p.m. Friday but was still waiting for a gate more than four hours later. Passenger's social media newsfeeds showed ground equipment plowed in at JFK, days after the “bomb cyclone” storm rumbled off the East Coast Thursday.

Water main break and aircraft accidents, too
The chaos may have contributed to an accident shortly after midnight Friday at the terminals between a China Southern plane that was being towed, and a parked Kuwait Airways airliner. No one was injured and all the passengers got off safely, with the Kuwait Airways passengers taken to hotels until they could be rebooked, the airline said.

Then, around 2 p.m. on Sunday, the sub-zero temperatures led to a water main bursting at Terminal 4, flooding the baggage claim area. Video on social media showed water pouring out of the ceiling, eventually leading to the terminal being closed and forcing the Port Authority to divert inbound flights to other terminals for several hours.

Dawn Elizabeth Stephenson, CEO and chief adventurer at Platinum Travel Insiders, Montclair, New Jersey, spent a good part of her weekend trying to help a client departing JFK on Jan. 4. The delays were so bad, they weren’t going to be able to leave until Sunday, Jan. 7,” Stephenson said, so the clients eventually canceled.

“It was really amongst the worst I’ve seen,” Stephenson said, “and I’m based out of these airports. And last night and today’s water main break. There were too many events that led to the perfect storm.”

Flight roundup
With a hub at JFK, JetBlue’s operations were hampered all weekend. On Saturday, 52 percent of its flights were delayed, and 11 percent were canceled, according to FlightAware. On Sunday, the airline still had 52 percent of its flights delayed, with cancellations dropping to 9 percent.

Americans Airlines had 18 percent of its Saturday flights delayed, and 22 percent of its flights delayed on Sunday, while Delta Airlines had 17 percent of its flights delayed Saturday, and 19 percent Sunday.

The rest of the U.S. wasn’t spared. A total of 4,773 flights were delayed into or out of the U.S. Saturday and another 5,665 were delayed Sunday, according to FlightAware. In addition, more than 1,200 flights were canceled into and out of the U.S. this weekend, the site said.

About one out of three flights were delayed at airports like Chicago O’Hare and Boston Logan.

A flight from Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, to Indianapolis for a family of five was canceled over the weekend, and agent Nancy Hawkins, Travels by Nancy, Noblesville, Indiana, had to work to reschedule them.

“This was a family of five, and the older daughter was heading back to college in Denver, while the rest were coming to Indianapolis, so they thought she would have to wait until Monday,” Hawkins said Sunday evening. “It’s not a fun thing leaving your daughter to fly alone, but with my suppliers’ help, she, too, is almost home now.”

At Toronto Pearson International, 53 percent of the flights there were delayed Saturday, and half were delayed Sunday. Friday night, an empty Sunwing aircraft bumped into a WestJet flight arriving from Cancun with 168 passengers and six crew on board.

The accident caused a small fire on the Sunwing plane, and an emergency evacuation of the WestJet flight. There were no passenger or crew injuries.

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