New York, NY —
An airport bottleneck is about to get tighter, as one of the busiest runways in the country shuts down for four months of repair, starting next Monday. The runway is at John F. Kennedy International Airport, which handles more than 40 million passengers every year. Air traffic controllers and airlines are getting prepared.
Map of closed runway.
As snow falls in the Northeast this morning, delays and cancellations at Kennedy Airport are up from the norm, and the norm isn't that good. One in every five flights out of Kennedy left late last year. And we're not talking 20 minutes late. The average delay was more than an hour.
Up in the air traffic control tower at Kennedy, 17 floors above ground level, Stephen Abraham talks to pilots who are ready to land. Abraham has been working as an air traffic controller at Kennedy for 20 years. He points to a monitor, which shows the airspace above the airport. Arriving planes are represented in green dots on the screen.
"You want them 5. You don’t want them 4.9 cause that’s illegal and you don’t want them 5.5 cause you’re wasting space," Abraham says.
What that means is Abraham has to make sure planes landing at the airport are 5 miles apart from each other. Less than that and he's got a safety issue on his hands. More than that, and he's got an efficiency problem. That’s because wasted airspace means wasted time. And that means wasted money for everyone.
That's just one balancing act air traffic controllers have to deal with. Throw in snow, wind direction, and, starting next week, the closure of a runway that handles half of all departures from Kennedy. Their job is about to get a lot harder.
"You clear somebody for take off. You watch. You cross airplanes across the runway you just used. And you look in specific places. They're called hot spots in the airport," Abraham says. Abraham and other air traffic controllers have been doing simulated and live test runs this month. "That's all new now. We have brand new hotspots in places that you wouldn't normally have to train your eyes to look," he says.
Bill Cranor is director of air traffic systems for JetBlue, the largest carrier at Kennedy. "Nothing like this has been done, at this scale at least, in the system before," Cranor says.
The worst case scenario is that all planes could be forced to use a single runway, because of strong north west winds. Cranor and Abraham are both on the front lines, and believe the runway closure will exacerbate delays. But their supervisors are more optimistic.
Dave Barger, CEO of JetBlue, is also sanguine about the closure. "Sure, we're going to know that it's happening over the course of 120 days. When you take 14,572 feet of pavement out of service, for literally one-third of the year. But I think there's real good preparation going into place to make sure we mitigate the impact of that," Barger says.
To head off those delays, the three major carriers at Kennedy, JetBlue, Delta, and American are cutting their flight schedules by 10 to 15 percent. And every plane makes 5 to 6 trips a day, which means a flight delayed in New York might not get to Chicago in time to take its next set of passengers to Los Angeles.
The Federal Aviation Administration has not analyzed how this runway closure could affect delays in other parts of the country.