JFK tarmac winter storm chaos revealed in communications between pilots, traffic controllers

JAMAICA, Queens (WABC) -- The chaos inside New York City's JFK Airport in the wake of the winter storm earlier this month was glaring. Outside, a less visible but just as hellish ordeal unfolded for passengers stuck on the tarmac for hours.

Pilot: "We need to go park somewhere, there's no ramp space."

In listening to hours of communications between pilots and air traffic control, 7 On Your Side Investigates has been able to piece together a picture of complete gridlock involving at least 25 international planes and thousands of stranded passengers.

Pilot: "How long here, should we shut'em down or what?"

Traffic Control: " We're limited taxiways available... I have nowhere to put you."

When JFK re-opened after the storm, overseas flights and earlier-diverted aircraft descended on the airport, gates quickly filled up but arrivals kept coming:

Traffic Control: "Heavy what is the update for your gate?

Pilot: "We don't have a gate right now."

The stress is clear in the voice of air traffic controllers:

Air Traffic: "You are the least of our problems. There's people out there that haven't had a gate for five hours."

And tempers inside some of the planes also reached a boiling point:

Air France Pilot: "We need the police at the arrival."

Traffic Control: "What for sir?"

Air France Pilot: "We have a revolution inside the aircraft." (split) "A lot of passengers are very, very angry and they want to have the police at the arrival."

Traffic Control: "Roger, I will call the police for you."

Listen to that conversation here:
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Listen to an audio recording revealing a pilot calling for police due to angry passengers.

Passengers on Air China Flight 989 spent seven hours on the tarmac before Port Authority mobile stairs and buses arrived.

"We landed at midnight," explained passenger Jenni Monet. "I would have never expected that I'd be looking out the window to see sunrise."

Monet, a professor at the University of Arizona, says the most frustrating part of the whole ordeal was finding out that the six privately-owned terminals operate separately and therefore did not help each other, even though gates at some terminals were available.

"That has to be relayed when we're talking about the well-being of passengers," Monet said, "and that doesn't even seem like it was considered."

And that left pilots with no other option but to break the Tarmac Delay law, which obligates international planes not to hold passengers on the tarmac for more than 4 hours:

Korean Air Pilot: "Just for verification that we have 4-5 minutes before our tarmac delay rule is not in compliance. We need to deplane as soon as possible."

Air Traffic Control: "I don't know where else to put you. There's no other gate for that aircraft."

Our investigation has found rarely does the Department of Transportation levy fines for tarmac delay violations. Since the rule took effect eight years ago, airlines have been hit with fines just 26 times for a total of $9.5 million. The law allows fines up to $27,000 per passenger.

The head of a national passenger advocacy group says the JFK meltdown was a complete failure of communication.

Charlie Leocha of TravelersUnited.Org says, " they should immediately set up some sort of system where the different terminals can talk to each other so there is someone who can deal with the question of what gates are open and how they can get passengers from stranded aircraft on the runway."

The Port Authority says in the future it will set up an "emergency operations center" during storms that will coordinate the independent terminals to assist one another when gates are scarce.

The U.S. Department of Transportation tells 7 On Your Side Investigats it is looking into the JFK meltdown to assess whether to impose fines for violation of the Tarmac Delay Law.


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