One less runway at JFK. What could possibly go wrong, wrong, wrong?

by Janice Hough on February 26, 2010


Most travelers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the number of runways at an airport. Unless they’re sitting on a plane when one is closed.

At San Francisco International Airport regular fliers are all-too-familiar with the concept of an unusable runway. The airport has two parallel runways that can only operate on days with good visibility. Considering summer fog and winter rain these kind of days are a lot less common than one would wish. Newark has a similar problem.

And now, JFK, already plagued by delays and tough connections between terminals is closing a runway March 1st for three months, if all goes well. Some news reports say it will be four months.

Oh, and, by the way, the runway in question, 13R-31L, is the MAIN runway. Details.

Of course, in the long run, this runway repair is a good thing. This work has been scheduled, postponed and rescheduled, for more than a year. Finally 13R-31L is about to have a $200 million plus makeover. It should work — the airport has three other runways.

But trouble will be lurking. According to Wikipedia the runway, at 14,000 feet, one of the longest in North America, currently handles almost half JFK’s scheduled departures.

With luck, the snow storms that have caused such chaos on the East Coast will abate during the closure. Along with serious rain and other weather delays. But realistically at best there is very little margin for error.

Added to the problem, JFK has lots of connections between commuter carriers and larger airlines. Since commuter planes are the first to be delayed, many of the connections with the mainline carriers are often missed.

I always advise clients to allow much more than the legal minimum, particularly on the outbound legs. Because if a small plane is delayed, even on a same carrier connection, the larger plane often won’t wait. It needs to stick to its take-off slot.

In addition, many bargain hunters will book discount carriers like Virgin America and JetBlue for the flight to JFK, and then connect to an international carrier for the transatlantic flight to their final destination.

This is especially true for international connections. JFK is the number one international gateway in the United States.

In these cases, not only do passengers have to claim and recheck their bags, but there is absolutely no chance the larger, non-affiliated carrier will delay a departure for a late-arriving passenger.

No doubt we will be hearing more about the runway story once they actually close it. But in the meantime, anyone flying to or through JFK in the near future should metaphorically fasten their seatbelt, because it’s going to be a bumpy few months.

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