New York's JFK mired in backlogs, with water main break adding to storm recovery woes

Key Points
  • A water main break set back JFK Airport's grudging recovery to normalcy on Sunday.
  • A lack of available gates added to the bottleneck at the airport.
  • Dozens of flights were forced to divert.
JetBlue airplanes wait at the gates outside terminal five at John F. Kennedy International Airport on January 4, 2018 in the Queens borough of New York City. A winter storm is traveling up the east coast of the United States dumping snow and creating blizzard like conditions in many areas.
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Days after a powerful winter storm struck the East Coast, air travel chaos continued at the busiest U.S. airport for international travel: New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

As airlines scrambled to get operations back to normal on Sunday, a water main break at the airport's Terminal 4, the departure point for many international flights, halted international arriving flights. After the storm, Sunday's turmoil threw the days-long recovery into question.

Bottlenecks from the storm caused hundreds of delayed flights. Over the weekend, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow bound for New York turned back about halfway through the trip, while dozens of other inbound flights were diverted to other U.S. airports, due to the storm, stranding travelers.

JFK tweet

Meanwhile, widebody planes that just arrived at JFK, carrying thousands of passengers from all corners of the globe, sat on taxiways for hours. Passengers inside the airport were left to deal with long delays, while some struggled to get information about their flights.

The trouble started when JFK, which received more than 31 million international travelers in 2016 — more than any other U.S. airport — shut down during the storm for nearly 24 hours. It started Thursday, when high winds and low visibility created dangerous takeoff and landing conditions.

When JFK re-opened there was a scramble for gates, and many arriving flights had to wait for hours to disembark passengers. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, said low temperatures after the storm made it more difficult to operate ground equipment, some of which it said froze, causing further delays.

A day after the airport reopened, the bottleneck after operations resumed was so severe that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) limited the number of flights destined for three of the airport's terminals on Saturday.

The Port Authority said it was reviewing its procedures, saying it "intends to aggressively review with its partners, the terminal operators and airlines, the process to assure that planes and passengers get to their gates during the surge of rescheduled flights that follow a severe weather event."

More than 5,000 flights were canceled because of the storm, according to FlightAware, a flight-tracking site. More than 200 flights in and out of JFK were delayed and more than 40 were canceled on Sunday.

However, delays around the country are expected to be minimal on Monday, according to FlightAware, as of midday on Sunday. If the gradual recovery holds, it would be a welcome reprieve for both leisure and business travelers, many of whom are hitting the road after the holidays for conferences around the country and beyond.

U.S. and international airlines, including British Airways, have said they will waive date-change fees for travelers booked into JFK and other area airports, for flights as late as Jan. 8 if they can fly a different day next week.