JFK airport tries to catch up, vows to probe weekend of woes

NEW YORK — Frazzled travelers snoozed on floors, and dozens of suitcases sat unclaimed as a welter of wintry problems — from a snowstorm to a burst water pipe — extended flight delays at Kennedy Airport into a fourth day Monday. The agency running the airport vowed to investigate the fiasco.

Andrea Collavo and his girlfriend were supposed to fly home to Italy on Friday after a vacation in the U.S. but still were trying to get into the air Monday.

They had spent days shuttling back and forth to hotels, waiting in a terminal, calling airlines and finally boarding 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."

More than 115 flights of the day's roughly 600 were canceled, and about 100 were delayed at one of the nation's busiest airports. And the weather brought a bit more freezing rain, sleet and snow Monday night.

"What happened over the weekend was a completely unacceptable performance," said Rick Cotton, executive director of Kennedy Airport's owner, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He pledged to bring in outside experts and investigators to dissect the breakdowns and improve communication and contingency plans.

"We intend to identify what went wrong, why it went wrong ... and we intend to fix it," Cotton said.

As officials hoped to get the airport back in order, Mariani Silva hoped to get out of it. She'd spent the night at Kennedy after arriving around 7 p.m. Sunday for her flight home to Brazil.

"I'm trying to go back to Sao Paulo since yesterday, and I'm still in the airport, sitting on the ground," she said, hoping to get on a plane Monday evening.

Other passengers tried to get hold of their luggage. At points, scores of suitcases were lined up in cordoned-off areas without their owners. Cotton said the Port Authority had told airlines and the companies that run terminals to get bags and passengers back together fast.

The trouble began when a winter storm blasted New York and snarled air travel on Thursday.

As the skies cleared, unusually cold weather shot in, creating what the airport operating agency called a cascade of problems over the weekend. Temperatures around the airport were in the teens and single digits Saturday and Sunday, hitting just 4 degrees around 8 a.m. Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.

Frozen equipment, luggage-handling problems and staff shortages slowed down operations on the ground. As flights got backlogged, gates clogged up, and some arriving passengers waited on the tarmac for hours and ended up being bused to terminals. Other flights were diverted. One plane even clipped another outside a terminal amid the difficult conditions early Saturday.

It wasn't immediately clear how many passenger-filled planes at JFK sat on the ground long enough to risk a possible U.S. Department of Transportation fine. The threshold is more than three hours for a domestic flight and four for an international one.

Then, around 2 p.m. Sunday, a water pipe broke . About 3 inches (8 centimeters) of water gushed onto the floor of Terminal 4, suspending its international flight arrivals for a few hours.

The terminal was completely up and running again four hours later, and flights resumed normal operations by 9:45 p.m., according to JFK International Air Terminal LLC, the company that runs the terminal.

Cotton blamed the weekend of woes primarily on poor communication between international airlines and terminal operating companies.

Brian Kelly, CEO of The Points Guy travel website, pointed to rocky coordination among the different companies that run the airport's terminals. They're independent of each other, and that can make it difficult, if not impossible, for an airline operating at one terminal to find a gate at another.

"I didn't think JFK could one-up itself, but it certainly did," Kelly said. "They need to get all the terminals working together because this can't happen again."

Meanwhile, Valentina Kukwa continued trying to get home to Salt Lake City from her trip to Cameroon. Two days of travel had turned into three-plus, including a daylong wait in Morocco, and she had no idea where some of her luggage was.

Kukwa, who's originally from Cameroon, wasn't surprised that a storm would disrupt winter travel.

"My frustration was the way they handled it," she said. "It's a bad situation, but they're making it worse."


Associated Press video journalist Joseph B. Frederick and photographer Richard Drew contributed from New York, and AP Airlines Writer David Koenig contributed from Dallas.

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