Two Local Maintenance Failures have system-wide Consequences
Lesson: need to insure basic maintenance is a priority
Airport infrastructure is a term which denotes runways and new terminals. Governors, Senators, Representatives and Mayors line up to take credit for FAA grants for those improvements. Major efforts are mounted to convince the Secretary and the Administrator to make discretionary grants to build major capital projects.
The failures at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport highlighted the vulnerability of the less glamorous aspects of airport infrastructure—a major power outage at ATL and a major water pipe break at JFK. These local failures did more that darken terminals and flood terminals; they both created major system delays affecting hundreds of flights and jamming airports worldwide. Neither ATL nor JFK were able to accept or depart aircraft, thus infecting the aviation system with horrendous interruptions.
With that preamble, it is clear that more attention needs to be devoted to the dirty little details of airport maintenance.
The decision makers, who release AIP dollars for worthy projects, should be certain that the applicants for the grants have attended to the basics. Recommended for the walls of these officials are the following quotes. At the next meeting with airport directors, mayors, governors and Members of Congress, the decision maker can read these quotes, drawn from the above articles:
- Even though he urged patience whenever temperatures plummet, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-New York) said the debacle at Kennedy Airport went well beyond the normal weather hassles.
“When it’s as cold as it was, you cut the airport a little slack. But this was more than a little slack. It seemed like almost everything broke down,” he said Sunday. “It seemed like a disaster.”
- “What happened at JFK Airport is unacceptable, and travelers expect and deserve better,” said Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton in a statement. “While the water pipe break that occurred appears to be weather-related, we have launched an investigation into the incident to determine exactly what occurred and why an internal pipe was not weather protected and whether any other failures contributed to this disruption.”
- Experts who study transportation infrastructure, however, expressed disbelief that such an incident could knock the Atlanta airport’s power out for so long.
“[A] fire shouldn’t paralyze the country’s busiest airport for half the day. It may take a couple hours to bring alternative power to the airport, but if the airport infrastructure itself was undamaged, it shouldn’t have been nearly as painful,” said Joseph Schwieterman, a public policy professor at DePaul University who specializes in transportation and urban planning.
- “Airport outages seem to be happening more and more, for a number of reasons, but planning for these outages is not prioritized,” said Megan Ryerson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies airport infrastructure planning.. ” … It’s something I think requires a lot of focus.”
According to Ryerson, carriers and airports should put more energy into ensuring day-to-day operations are “as reliable and predictable as possible, rather than focusing on growth.”
✔@anthonyfoxx Total and abject failure here at ATL Airport today. ¦ I am stuck on @delta flight, passengers and crew tolerating it. ¦ But there is no excuse for lack of workable redundant power source. ¦ NONE! #atlairport #delta 4:59 PM - Dec 17, 2017
No doubt about it, airports have significant capital needs to meet the demand for more flights. The ATL and JFK disasters demonstrated that what appeared to be local maintenance issues can have major systemwide consequences. These should serve as lessons for priorities in airport budgets; do not neglect the basics.
Nota Bene: the ZAU fire was a similar teachable moment for the FAA. Though that problem occurred in the midst of equipment upgrade, system deferred maintenance at all ATC facilities exceeds $240M. Not good!
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