Travellers stuck at JFK Airport for days

FRAZZLED passengers have endured days of chaos at this major international airport. Bad weather was just the start of their problems.

FRAZZLED travellers snoozed on floors, and dozens of suitcases sat unclaimed as a welter of wintry problems — from a snowstorm to a burst water pipe — saw delays spanning four days at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport.

Andrea Collavo and his girlfriend were supposed to fly home to Italy on Thursday after a holiday in the US but still were trying to get into the air. They had spent days shuttling back and forth to hotels, waiting in a terminal, calling airlines and finally boarding a plane on Monday only to have it spend two hours on the tarmac and then turn back because of an equipment problem, a frustrated Mr Collavo said.

“I can understand,” he said. “Yeah, it’s a mess because of the weather. But it seems that they’re not very well organised. There’s a big lack of information.”

More than 115 flights of the day’s roughly 600 were cancelled, and about 100 were delayed at one of America’s busiest airports. And the weather brought a bit more freezing rain, sleet and snow.

“What happened over the weekend was a completely unacceptable performance,” said Rick Cotton, executive director of Kennedy Airport’s owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He pledged to bring in outside experts and investigators to dissect the breakdowns and improve communication and contingency plans.

“We intend to identify what went wrong, why it went wrong ... and we intend to fix it,” Mr Cotton said.

Meanwhile, passengers tried desperately to get hold of their luggage. At points, scores of suitcases were lined up in cordoned-off areas without their owners. Cotton said the Port Authority had told airlines and the companies that run terminals to get bags and passengers back together fast.

The trouble began when a winter storm blasted New York and snarled air travel on Friday.

As the skies cleared, unusually cold weather shot in, creating what the airport operating agency called a cascade of problems over the weekend.

Frozen equipment, luggage-handling problems and staff shortages slowed down operations on the ground. As flights got backlogged, gates clogged up, and some arriving passengers waited on the tarmac for hours and ended up being bussed to terminals. Other flights were diverted. One plane even clipped another outside a terminal amid the difficult conditions.

It wasn’t immediately clear how many passenger-filled planes at JFK sat on the ground long enough to risk a possible US Department of Transportation fine. The threshold is more than three hours for a domestic flight and four for an international one.

Then, a water pipe broke. About eight centimetres of water gushed onto the floor of Terminal 4, suspending its international flight arrivals for a few hours.

The terminal was completely up and running again four hours later, and flights resumed normal operations later that night, according to JFK International Air Terminal LLC, the company that runs the terminal.

Mr Cotton blamed the weekend of woes primarily on poor communication between international airlines and terminal operating companies.

Brian Kelly, CEO of The Points Guy travel website, pointed to rocky co-ordination among the different companies that run the airport’s terminals. They’re independent of each other, and that can make it difficult, if not impossible, for an airline operating at one terminal to find a gate at another.

“I didn’t think JFK could one-up itself, but it certainly did,” Mr Kelly said. “They need to get all the terminals working together because this can’t happen again.”

Meanwhile, Valentina Kukwa continued trying to get home to Salt Lake City from her trip to Cameroon. Two days of travel had turned into three-plus, including a daylong wait in Morocco, and she had no idea where some of her luggage was. Kukwa, who’s originally from Cameroon, wasn’t surprised that a storm would disrupt winter travel.

“My frustration was the way they handled it,” she said. “It’s a bad situation, but they’re making it worse.”

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