The FAA, U.S. airlines and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are scrambling to find ways to avoid major delays and traffic disruptions this spring, when New York’s Kennedy Airport begins a construction project that will knock its busiest runway out of commission for four months.
At the FAA’s request, U.S. airlines serving Kennedy have agreed to maintain their winter and early spring flight frequencies on both domestic and international routes through the beginning of July. Typically, the carriers increase the frequency of their flights during summer months.
The FAA is also setting up a mini command center in the Kennedy tower that will be run by agency personnel along with airline representatives to help handle traffic and coordinate efforts to prevent delays and congestion at one of the country’s busiest hubs.
The FAA said that the lighter flight operations and the agency’s beefed-up on-site presence should be enough to ensure that airline operations continue safely and with as little disruption as possible between the first week of March and the last week of June.
It is during that time that the port authority will undertake the complete demolition and rebuilding of Runway 31L.
Some officials have likened the project to open-heart surgery on the runway, which handles 30% of the airport’s annual operations and half its departures.
The $376.3 million project will widen the runway surface from 150 feet to 200 feet to accommodate new aircraft such as the Airbus A380 and will remove six inches of the existing runway surface and replace it with 18 inches of more durable concrete. The port authority also will install new runway lighting and electrical systems.
Runway 31L measures 14,572 feet, or about 2.75 miles, in length. The reconstruction project will require enough cement to pave all 31 National Football League fields to a two-foot depth and asphalt equal to the weight of six Titanics.
Between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15, more work on the runway will limit its usable length to 10,700 feet.
The port authority is building a small, on-site concrete plant and taking other measures to ensure that the work is completed on schedule, in time for midsummer traffic.
The runway was last rehabilitated in 1993, using conventional asphalt-paving methods. Interim repairs were performed in 2004, after increased aircraft traffic had accelerated its deterioration.
An unavoidable mess?
Now, the port authority says the runway needs a complete overhaul. The question on the minds of many in the industry is whether the port authority can close Kennedy’s biggest, busiest runway safely and with minimal disruption through the spring and into early summer.
"That’s not the best timing," said analyst Darryl Jenkins, founder of the Airline Zone, an aviation economic website. "This could wind up being quite a mess."
That’s especially true for Kennedy, which, along with other New York-area airports, consistently scores at or near the bottom of airport rankings in the Transportation Department’s monthly on-time reports.
From March to June this year, the best on-time arrival score Kennedy could muster was 76.4% in March; it couldn’t break 68.4% for the other three months.
Paradoxically, measures that might have eased congestion during this period at all three of New York’s major airports — Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty — were recently rejected because of concerns raised by airlines and air traffic controllers.
Two years ago, an advisory group identified 77 initiatives to cut down on New York-area airport delays. Carriers complained about the higher costs of implementing plans to reroute flights from the Caribbean to Newark or to reduce spacing between aircraft in a holding pattern.
Another proposal, intended to spread delays to other airports in the Northeast, was never implemented because of airlines’ concerns that resulting delays would be unevenly distributed.
Controllers opposed a recommendation to allow simultaneous or dual approaches at Kennedy and Newark airports because of perceived safety issues, workload requirements and insufficient benefits.
The FAA inspector general reported earlier this month that only five of the 77 initiatives had been implemented and were having any impact. The inspector general said the FAA needed to revisit its plans.
For now, though, the FAA is focused on Kennedy, and the agency has been meeting with port authority and airline representatives over the past year to secure agreements for the lighter flight operations during the project.
But skepticism abounds.
"We will probably try to steer passengers away from JFK in order to minimize having to reschedule passengers at a later date," said Michael MacNair, CEO of MacNair Travel Management.
Bill Miller, senior vice president at CheapOAir, said, "I just don’t know how they can say this won’t have any impact without taking out a lot of departures."
Of particular concern, Miller said, is that "it will be difficult not to interrupt international commerce."
FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said the agency has no agreements with foreign carriers to maintain their winter and early spring frequencies while the runway is closed, nor does it plan to ask for any.
The agreements with U.S. carriers should do the job, Salac said.
"We’ve been working with the airlines and the port authority for about a year now," she said.
Even so, the frequency cutbacks on domestic flights are certain to affect international flights because, in Jenkins’ words, "International service relies on domestic feed."
The airlines said the thinner flight operations were worth the trouble of doing the work and cutting down on delays during the runway project. Departures will be reduced about 10%, on average, during that time.
JetBlue CEO: "It's a big deal"
The biggest carrier at Kennedy by a large margin, based on departures and arrivals, is JetBlue. CEO David Barger told analysts last month in the airline’s quarterly conference call that closing the runway was a "big deal."
He said the JetBlue would operate on a winter-like schedule, cutting back daily flights by 13%, to about 155 departures per day, while the runway is closed.
Delta said it would be operating at early spring frequencies, and American said it essentially planned to do the same.
"We’ll tentatively operate about the same number of flights in summer 2010 as we are currently operating now in winter 2009 and on into spring," American spokesman Tim Smith said.
"Between American and Eagle together, we average approximately 90 departures per day at JFK. The idea, of course, is to keep congestion to a minimum by not ramping up the summer schedule as would normally be done during the summer season."
Barger said there were bound to be some disruptions but added it was better to close the ramp and get all the work done in one shot than to space it out over years using midnight work shifts.
"Once the patient is on the table, do the whole project," he told analysts. "You end up with a much better product."