JAMAICA, Queens - One air traffic controller called the weekend gridlock at John F. Kennedy International Airport "a horror show," but it took awhile for those running the airport to realize what was happening.
The FAA issued an alert to international pilots at 1:15 p.m. Saturday, telling them to not take off from overseas until they contacted their terminal operator at JFK to secure a confirmed gate assignment. But by then, it was too late. With gates already filled, at least 25 planes were stuck on the JFK tarmac, leaving thousands of passengers stranded for hours.
"We sat on the plane for four hours," one passenger said. "That's longer than my flight, and then another three to four hours to get my luggage."
New York's Senator Charles Schumer weighed in on the weekend meltdown.
"It seemed almost everything broke down," he said. "It seemed like a disaster."
All airports are required to have an emergency plan for dealing with planes stuck on the tarmac. The Port Authority's plan is two pages and basically shifts the responsibility to the private terminal operators, saying gates are not controlled by the Port Authority and that the Port Authority does not operate any ground service equipment.
"JFK has to follow the Boy Scouts' motto," Schumer said. "Be prepared. And they were not."
Equipment breakdowns due to the frigid temperatures and ground crew shortages added to the gridlock, and the cascade of problems became a waterfall when a burst pipe flooded Terminal 4 on Sunday.
Late Monday afternoon, Port Authority executive director Rick Cotton blamed the private operators of Terminals 1 and 4 and their international airline partners for failure to communicate.
"They failed to ensure gates were available on a timely basis for inbound aircraft," he said.
Cotton acknowledged, however, that the Port Authority may have been too hands off.
"Most importantly to also review and decide where the Port Authority needs to step in if there are failures or issues," he said.
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