JFK runway – Concrete or Asphalt?

NEW YORK – One runway, a whole lot of problems.

The mainrunway at New York’s John F. Kennedy International will be closed forfour months starting March 1. Millions of travelers will experiencedelays – including some not flying anywhere near the Big Apple.

Withabout one-third of JFK’s traffic and half of its departures beingdiverted to three smaller runways, planes will wait on longer lines onthe ground for takeoffs and in the air for landings. Delays at one ofthe nation’s largest airports will ripple to cities across the U.S.,including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Orlando.

Passengersusing JFK also face another headache – higher ticket prices. JetBlue,American, Delta and other airlines have cut their schedules by about 10percent for the shutdown period. They can raise prices because therewill be a smaller number of seats to meet demand.

JFK’s BayRunway, at 14,572 feet, is one of the longest commercial runways in theworld. It’s a backup landing spot for the space shuttle, which has itsnext mission in April. The runway is being repaved with concreteinstead of less-durable asphalt and widened to accommodate today’sbigger planes.

The project will affect at least the first monthof the peak travel season, which officially starts on Memorial Day. Butthe chosen four-month period was picked because it’s the driest in theNew York area, making weather-related construction delays less likely.Of course, prompt completion isn’t certain. A similar runway repair inMinneapolis last year created thousands of delays when it was slowed byunseasonably wet weather.

JFK is already one of the nation’s mostdelay-plagued airports. It ranked 28th out of 31 major airports in 2009in on-time performance, according to the Department of Transportation.A delay at JFK, especially one early in the morning, can push backflights across the U.S.

The longest delays occur at peak hours – from about 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. ET and between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Theairlines and the airport are making adjustments. Besides cuttingflights, airlines are adding time into their schedules. So althoughflights may take longer, more won’t necessarily be considered late.Still, Mike Sammartino of the Federal Aviation Administration expectsdelays at JFK will be about 50 minutes during peak times and 29 minuteson average – similar to busy summer days.

Sammartino also saysJFK officials have added new taxi ways at angles that allow planes togo from terminal to takeoff more quickly. He noted that the FAA and thePort Authority of New York and New Jersey, which are financing the $376million project, began planning the shutdown in early 2009.

JetBlue,the biggest carrier at the airport, said it expects some “operationalchallenges,” but that its reduced flight schedule should help alleviatecongestion.

However, for passengers on network carriers likeDelta and American the delays will likely be worse, said Lance Sherry,executive director for the Center for Air Transportation SystemsResearch at George Mason University. JetBlue already tends to avoid therush hours at JFK. And it has fewer connecting flights, which pushdelays across the country.

Even if you avoid big delays, you could face higher fares. George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.comsaid some fares are up significantly for the March-June period. Forexample, the lowest published fares for flights between JFK and LosAngeles International Airport through June 20 range between $278 and$298 roundtrip. That’s up from $198 to $218 recently. Delays and higherfares will affect Los Angeles travelers the most because the city isthe most popular domestic destination from JFK, followed by SanFrancisco and Orlando.

Airfares usually rise as springapproaches. But the lowest published fare from LaGuardia, just 8 mileswest of JFK, is $100 cheaper for a connecting flight in the same timeperiod – a more significant gap than normal. Nonstop flights to theWest Coast aren’t available from LaGuardia.

The shutdown also affects the coordination of flights, and the people who make sure the planes take off and land safely.

SteveAbraham says he and his fellow JFK air traffic controllers must learnhow to move aircraft efficiently without the use of their biggestrunway. That could add more time to takeoffs and landing, at leastinitially. Fifty percent of the controllers at JFK have less than 4years of experience.

“It’s like renting a car in England – youknow how to drive but you’re driving on the other of the road,” Abrahamsaid. “I know how to say ‘clear for take off’ but I’m just doing it ina configuration that I’m not used to.”

JFK airport officialsopted for the four-month total shutdown rather than a constructionschedule that included overnight work for 2 to 3 years. That’s a moveAbraham says air traffic controllers support.

“I’d much rather inconvenience people for four months than for two years.”

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