John F. Kennedy International Airport is always a step behind the curve. By the time its terminals opened to the public in 1948, they were already too small and out of date. Decades later, nothing has changed, as shown by this month’s “bomb-cyclone” cold snap. However you slice it, JFK is a disgrace to our city and nation.
As the airport aged, the terminals and supporting infrastructure were left neglected, and deteriorated to today’s dilapidated conditions. Mega airports sprouted up in Dubai, Hong Kong and Beijing, all while the Port Authority applied only duct tape to JFK. The cracks have finally widened to the breaking point. After a disastrous week where utter chaos followed a routine snowstorm, passengers are as mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
Incident after incident has shown that the PA is unable or unwilling to effectively manage, maintain and improve its airports. New York’s airports are a worldwide disgrace, openly mocked by passengers and politicians alike. Now, more than ever, it may be the time to remove the PA from the picture entirely.
“One way or another, if airlines will not act in their own interests to mitigate poor outcomes, then the Port Authority, which, along with the region, takes a black eye every time airlines fail to act, must act to host a solution,” said Robert W. Mann, an airline-industry consultant.
“If the Port Authority fails to act, then Albany or Washington must do so. So, who chooses to lead?”
New York City has the power to change things. It owns the land under JFK Airport, which it leases to the PA, an agency run jointly by New York and New Jersey.
Unfortunately for passengers, the PA routinely diverts funds to other projects, neglecting its multiple airports in favor of, for example, a $4 billion train station at Ground Zero.
The time has come for the de Blasio administration to take a look at privatizing the airport — allowing one company to be a unifying force for all of its terminals.
Profits from federally capped passenger facility fees could be used to modernize the airport’s infrastructure, build new terminals and provide passengers with an experience that doesn’t consistently rank as the worst in the world.
New Yorkers should no longer accept the PA’s mind-boggling costs and inept management.
While privatization of airports has proven to be a success elsewhere in the world, almost all airports in the United States remain operated by state or local governments. But officials need only to look at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was privatized under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Privatization Pilot Program in 2013, after which the airport’s terminals were completely overhauled, infrastructure upgraded and management installed to ensure the facility functioned smoothly.
The biggest issue that privatization would solve is the PA’s bewildering decision to allow each terminal at JFK to be independently managed and operated.
Terminal 1 has no idea what is happening at Terminal 4, and vice versa. Essentially, each terminal has become its own independent mini-airport, connected only by taxiways and the shared misery among passengers. There is no central command during irregular operations in order to contain issues.
The “bomb cyclone” left passengers trapped aboard aircraft for up to seven hours waiting for a gate at specific terminals. Had the PA stepped in earlier to demand terminals act as one cohesive unit, the misery could have been avoided. During future severe weather events, the agency must have an actual plan in place to preemptively control situations at its terminals, rather than simply reacting to a situation already gone wrong.
In the meantime, there are ways to improve JFK that should have been put into effect years ago.
The PA must find ways to better utilize the more than ample amount of space it has, and possibly reconsider the idea of adding a passenger terminal outside the existing Central Terminal Area. While many airports across the world are prevented from expanding by physical or political limitations, JFK and its management has become its own worst enemy.
Scores of abandoned buildings and cargo facilities dot the 8.1-square-mile airport, wasting val-able space that could be used to enhance the operational capabilities of JFK.
During significant weather events, JFK quickly runs out of places to stash aircraft. In the winter, departing aircraft fight for space to be de-iced and crews often time-out and must return to their gate. When departing aircraft are delayed, it becomes difficult for air-traffic controllers to find places to hold arrivals until their gates are ready.
Many airports around the world utilize a practice of parking aircraft in remote areas known as hard stands, busing passengers to the terminal if the facilities run out of gate space at any given moment. Los Angeles International Airport has multiple remote gates equipped with jet bridges to handle overflow flights. They are connected to the main international terminal with a bus system.
Rather than having incoming flights idle for hours on end, chalking it up to terminal congestion, the PA should repurpose wasted space to build a new area of remote gates for use when needed. This practice is proven to work at other global hubs and there is no reason it can’t work at JFK.
In July 2017, Gov. Cuomo announced a request for proposals to “transform” JFK into a better airport, but still not anywhere near modern standards. While Cuomo’s vision calls for terminals to be better connected, it falls short of tackling the root cause of so many problems.
New Yorkers deserve better. The traveling public at large deserves better. New York needs an airport that passengers don’t actively avoid, one that doesn’t trap its passengers for seven hours after a 1.5-hour flight because of operational incompetence.
We can and should demand better from the PA. If it can’t deliver, we need to find someone who will.
Jason Rabinowitz writes about airlines at Thepointsguy.com.