Flight activity resumes at JFK after water main break, but delays persist

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Darla Miles has more on the water main break issue at JFK Airport.

Full flight activity has resumed at JFK Airport's Terminal 4 after a water main break caused chaos and suspended international arrivals. Officials hoped for normal operations after the issue was resolved, but many frustrated passengers were still experiencing delays for a fourth straight day Monday.

Frazzled travelers snoozed on floors and dozens of suitcases sat unclaimed as the welter of wintry problems extended flight delays.

The issues Sunday and Monday came after the winter storm wreaked havoc on air travel into Saturday, with a massive number of delays and cancellations. Frozen equipment, luggage-handling problems and staff shortages slowed down operations on the ground, and as flights got backlogged, gates clogged up, and some arriving passengers waited on the tarmac for hours and ended up being bused to terminals.

Then a feeder pipe to the sprinkler system broke due to the cold weather around 2 p.m. Sunday, flooding the terminal with 3 inches of water. Fire alarms went off, and workers shut down power in the Customs hall as a precaution.

"The pipe had frozen, so this appears to be directly weather-related," Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said. "But what is not clear is why the pipe was not weather protected."

The flooding took out two thirds of the arrivals area of Terminal 4, including Customs and Immigration processing facility. The arrivals level frontage areas were also required to close at the time. Passengers were left on planes on the tarmac for hours, and those who made it into the terminal were unable to get their checked luggage. Many flights still in the air were diverted to other airports, including Boston. One plane even clipped another outside a terminal amid the difficult conditions early Saturday.

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."

Twelve international flights arrived during the time of the water main break, and all were de-planed and processed through Customs. Because there was no baggage claim, seven planes-worth of of passengers went through Customs and were told to leave the airport through a side door without their bags. Bags were still on most airplanes, which meant those planes could not be turned around for departures until they had been emptied.

Senator Chuck Schumer said that everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

Overall, 143 flights were canceled due to the water main break. Officials said 32 of those flights were international, and 38 were Delta.

At one point, passengers told Eyewitness News that airport officials wanted to do a full evacuation of the building, but they backtracked due to the bitter cold temperatures outside.

The Port Authority has launched a full investigation to find out what happened, saying it will "hold all responsible parties accountable."

Cotton said the days of delays, cancellations and stranded travelers add up to a "completely unacceptable performance."

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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