When the pilots of the passenger-filled 767 American Airlines plane got their landing instructions from the Kennedy Tower, they realized they'd be touching down into a 35-mile per hour cross wind.
"We can't land on 22," the pilot responded. "We're breaking off approach and if you don't give us to runway 31 right, we're going to declare an emergency."
"The winds again increased, exceeded the characteristics of the plane, and he was forced to have another option," said Steve Abraham, of the JFK Controller union. "He had no choice. He couldn't land 22L, it would have been illegal for him."
It would also be dangerous, agreed Abraham.
Landing into a cross wind is much more complicated, but since the closing eight weeks ago of JFK's main runway, air traffic controllers say they've been pressured by the FAA to land planes into tricky cross winds.
There is a safer option, but it would require the use of one runway for all flights in and out of the airport, which would create nightmarish delays.
"It's an issue of capacity versus safety," Abraham said. "If we are on a single runway configuration, landing on runway 31R, which was the runway most in line with the wind, we have major capacity issues, we will run extensive delays."
On Tuesday evening, American Flight 2 out of Los Angeles felt the balance between major delays and safety had been pushed to far.
"You're saying you're declaring an emergency?" the controller asked.
"Three times I told you that, three times, we're declaring and emergency," the pilot responded.
Now, low on fuel, the pilot made it clear he would not land into strong crosswinds.
"American 2 heavy, we are turning around to the left here and landing 31," the pilot said. "Remove everyone from our way, we've declared an emergency, we're on visual."
"American 2 heavy, 31 right clear to land, wind gusting at 24," the JFK tower controller said.
The controller said Tuesday's emergency landing is a warning that with the main runway under construction, safety should not be compromised just to avoid delays.
"I can explain to somebody why they're late," Abraham said. "I can't explain when they don't get there."
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