Even before a water main broke and flooded much of Terminal 4 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport early Sunday afternoon, the travel hub resembled a warzone, populated by blank-eyed employees and civilians, none of them quite sure what had happened over the past few days, and none of them happy about it.
“I’m sure somebody was ready to poke a pencil in their eye,” says Patti Clark, a former airport manager who now teaches at Embry-Riddle’s College of Aeronautics.
That’s because the resulting flood—up to three inches of water in some spots—was merely the last bad joke at the end of a four-day, rolling air travel disaster. The mess started Wednesday, when East Coasters learned there’s such a thing as a bomb cyclone, and that it was coming for them.
By Sunday, after half a foot of snow, gale force winds, and three days of single-digit temperatures, JFK had set a new standard for air travel horrors: Travelers waited for hours or days for their flights, sitting on scavenged sheets of cardboard in their socks, fuming to nearby reporters and farflung Twitter followers. Outside, the scene was more apocalyptic. Aircraft crowded the tarmac, too many of them for the gates. Passengers were left in planes for as long as seven hours after landing. And that was a full day and a half after the cyclone bomb had dissipated.
The question then: What happened? Was this just a run of real bad luck? Or is the airline industry such a delicate flower that a bit of snow and wind can trigger the end of days?
At the start, the situation didn’t seem so exceptional. Sure, by Thursday morning, as the blizzard was really whipping New York, two-thirds of flights going into and out of the region’s airports had been canceled. Late that morning, JFK grounded all air traffic. But snow is a regular feature of Northeast winters, and cancellations are more annoyance than disaster: Airlines and airports have procedures for getting everything back in place within a day or two.
Then the storm proved worse than predicted. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates JFK (along with LaGuardia and Newark airports, the George Washington Bridge, and a few other things) repeatedly delayed the airport’s reopening, ultimately pushing it back from Thursday afternoon to Friday morning. Dozens of flights that weren’t canceled were diverted to other airports: Planes that had taken off from London and Vienna turned around over the Atlantic and headed home. Swiss, Finnair, and Asiana Airlines sent aircraft to Chicago. A Singapore Airlines A380 super jumbo alighted at puny Stewart Airport in upstate New York. That left a lot of planes, passengers, and crews far from where they needed to be, waiting for their first chance to get back into place.
On Friday, the snow was gone, the runways were clear, and the real trouble was starting. “Everybody was eager to get back to normal,” Clark says. The airlines that had diverted their planes started sending them to JFK. They tried to make up for their canceled flights and stick to their standard schedules. The result, aviation blogger Jason Rabinowitz wrote in The New York Post, was the equivalent of two days’ worth of planes trying to land at the airport in the space of a few hours. Imagine a ballet where all the understudies take the stage, then just as the curtain rises, all the regulars join in. Through pirouettes, arabesques, and plies, the dancers jostle for space, and fight for their assigned spots filled by someone else. Chaos.
And so by Friday evening, the airport tarmac looked like a parking lot:
Planes that had landed were stuck on the tarmac because there were no available gates. Some waited an hour, two hours, even three. An AirChina Boeing 777 that arrived from Beijing sat stranded for seven hours.
Not that it will placate anyone who endured that brutal addendum to a 14-hour flight, but moving a plane into or out of a gate isn’t as simple as it seems, especially in these circumstances. First off, you need someplace safe to stash it, and by Friday night JFK’s taxiways were nearly full. If you want to move a plane stuffed with passengers, you need pilots and flight attendants aboard, who are bound by rules governing how long they can work without taking a break. And if a plane at a gate is waiting to leave, it makes sense to leave it there, rather than send the passengers back into the terminal. At least you’ve got everyone seated and in one place.
Still wondering what happened? The key point to hold in mind is that, like any ballet, air travel is an exquisitely managed operation. Airlines plan their schedules months in advance, down to the minute. They obsess over turnaround times, how long it takes them to get one batch of fliers off a plane and a fresh group in their place. Canceling a flight is never a fun choice, because it means losing two planeloads of fares—one for the original journey and another for the return flight it would have made. Airlines operate with profit margins around 3 percent, which is why they charge you for everything they can think of, and weep when they lose the chance.
And this nasty New York weekend, an Arctic blast sent the game of pick-up sticks flying.
For one thing, the snow was just part of the problem—and continued to be after it was plowed off runways and taxiways, since the resulting piles took up precious space for all the planes on the ground. And while the blizzard did depart, the low temperatures remained, freezing equipment and limiting the time workers could spend outside. Operations like moving baggage and fueling planes slowed down, and the snow stacks stayed put.
So the next time you’re cursing the no-good airline that somehow keeps sliding its hands into your pockets even though the seat barely holds your tuckus, remember that this is not about you.
Then, just after midnight on Saturday, the wing of a plane being towed across the tarmac clipped the tail of a parked jet full of passengers. (Nobody was hurt.) There’s no word yet on how that happened or if it was weather-related, but it exacerbated a rough situation. The crash demanded the immediate attention of already harried airport officials and workers, who had to evacuate the full plane and move both aircraft—and ended up with two aircraft that couldn’t fly, hogging more space.
The airport’s operating structure made all this worse: The Port Authority oversees JFK, but independent operators run the six terminals. Because airlines make deals with whoever runs their usual terminal, they can’t just use another one when theirs is overcrowded. This was especially problematic at Terminal 1, used by foreign airlines, which has just 11 gates. “I don’t think you can point the finger at anyone in particular,” says William Rankin, a former airport manager who now who teaches courses in airport operations and airport management at the Florida Institute of Technology. “It can snowball into something that builds up rather quickly,”
Snowball. Get it?
Relief finally came Saturday afternoon, when the Port Authority asked the FAA to slow the rate of inbound flights, and stop those coming into Terminal 1 altogether. It’s not a common move (such stoppages are usually used when the weather’s really bad), but it gave the airport the breathing space it needed to clear out its backlog.
All those factors may not offer much of an answer, at least not one that will satisfy those thousands of suffering JFK travelers. But it’s a reminder that air travel is complicated—so many millions of people and moving parts—and that it usually works surprisingly well. At any moment, there are about 5,000 planes flying through US airspace. The FAA handled more than 15 million flights in 2016, nearly 43,000 a day. Every one landed safely, 80 percent of them on time.
So the next time you’re cursing the no-good airline that somehow keeps sliding its hands into your pockets even though the seat barely holds your tuckus, and still won’t open the door of the metal tube and let you go already, remember that this is not about you. It’s about the fog in San Francisco and the wind in Boise and the snow piles from last week’s storm. It’s about the schedules of the baggage handlers and the caterers and the fuel trucks and the flight crews, the delicate coordination of airlines, dispatchers, air traffic control, and security. These and a million other fragments form a vast and precariously balanced system, one that lets you hop around the world, cheaply, safely, and quickly, if not quite comfortably.
A word of warning, though: Perfect-storm weekend disasters like the one at JFK could become more common in the future. The changing climate will produce more, fiercer, weirder weather events. Meanwhile, global passenger demand is expected to nearly double in the next 20 years, to 7.2 billion fliers a year in 2035. Airports—hugely expensive and complicated to build or expand—won’t keep up. The air travel dance will get more complex, the stage more crowded, and the bad performances more common.
For now, though, have some appreciation for what it takes to scramble this particular show: a terrible combination of a new kind of blizzard, freezing temperatures, crashing planes, and overzealous airlines. Sunday’s broken water main presented a final wrinkle, but once the flow was stopped and the water mopped up, JFK looked nearly normal on Monday.