NEW YORK /January 8, 2018 (AP)(STL.News) — Frazzled travelers snoozed on floors and dozens of suitcases sat unclaimed as a welter of wintry problems — from a snowstorm to a burst water pipe — extended flight delays at Kennedy Airport into a fourth day Monday.
Andrea Collavo and his girlfriend were supposed to fly home to Italy on Friday after a vacation in the U.S., but flight cancellations and delays meant they were still trying to get into the air days later. They hauled their suitcases back to Kennedy Monday morning, hoping they could manage to get to Venice by Wednesday, even if it might mean buying pricey new tickets.
They had spent days shuttling back and forth to hotels, waiting in a terminal, calling airlines and finally getting on a plane Sunday only to have it spend two hours on the tarmac and then turn back because of an equipment problem, a frustrated Collavo said.
“I can understand: Yeah, it’s a mess because of the weather. But it seems that they’re not very well organized,” he said. “There’s a big lack of information.”
With a forecast calling for a bit more snow and sleet Monday night, scores of flights were still delayed or canceled earlier in the day as one of the nation’s busiest airports tried to untangle a knot of trouble that began when a winter storm blasted New York and snarled air travel on Thursday.
As the skies cleared, unusually cold weather shot in, creating what the airport operating agency called a cascade of problems over the weekend. Temperatures around the airport were in the teens and single digits Saturday and Sunday, hitting just 4 degrees around 8 a.m. Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.
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 bused to terminals. Other flights were diverted. One plane even clipped another outside a terminal amid the difficult conditions early Saturday.
“What broke down — and it broke down badly — was the coordination between terminal operators and the airlines to assure that there were gates available for the arriving airplanes,” Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told reporters Sunday. The Port Authority owns and operates JFK, although private companies and airlines run the terminals.
Mariani Silva spent the night at JFK, after arriving around 7 p.m. Sunday for her flight home to Brazil. She was hoping to get on a plane Monday evening.
“I’m trying to go back to Sao Paulo since yesterday, and I’m still in the airport, sitting on the ground,” she said.
It wasn’t immediately clear how many passenger-filled planes at JFK sat on the ground long enough to risk a possible U.S. Department of Transportation fine. The threshold is more than three hours for a domestic flight and four for an international one.
Then, around 2 p.m. Sunday, a water pipe broke , sending about 3 inches (8 cm) of water gushing onto the floor of JFK’s Terminal 4, forcing the airport to suspend its international flight arrivals for a few hours.
The terminal was completely up and running again four hours later, and flights resumed normal operations by 9:45 p.m., according to JFK International Air Terminal LLC, the company that runs the terminal.
Cotton said the Port Authority would investigate why the pipe broke and “hold all responsible parties accountable.”
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.”
Associated Press video journalist Joseph B. Frederick contributed from New York, and AP Airlines Writer David Koenig contributed from Dallas.