The JFK Mess
Burst Pipes and Flooded Baggage Area
Mass Passenger Confusion
Secretary LaHood and US DOT to invertigate
Dear Secretary Chao:
I write to request your assistance in addressing some of the coordination and communication issues that occurred at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) following last week’s winter storm. While there is no question that the problems at JFK were a result of multiple factors, including bad weather, operational mistakes, poor timing, and the cascading impact of airport disruptions on the entire aviation network, it’s also clear that better communication between foreign airlines, the Port Authority, and terminal operators could have helped to prevent some of the chaos.
I am aware that former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will be conducting a thorough investigation of the situation, and I eagerly await the results of that review and any recommendations he may have. That said, I also believe we should start making progress on some of the underlying issues immediately, and that includes using the Department of Transportation’s leverage over foreign airlines to encourage them develop more meaningful communication systems and contingency plans with the Port Authority, and the individual companies that manage terminal operations.
While certainly not the only factor, in this case communication breakdowns between international airlines and ground operations contributed to an unacceptable situation. Passengers were left stranded, luggage was lost, and flights were diverted as a result of, among other things, the inability for international airlines, the Port Authority, and terminal operators to quickly and adequately communicate on a plan of action. It’s notable that while every airline experienced issues as a result of the weather related emergency, the situation was far worse with foreign carriers. It’s my firm belief that part of the reason for that is that foreign airlines simply do not have the same level of cooperation, coordination, and communication with ground control operations.
As you are aware, the Department of Transportation has tremendous leverage over foreign airlines because the Department is responsible for issuing Foreign Air Carrier Certificates for airlines wishing to operate in the United States. It’s my hope that you will utilize that leverage to ensure that foreign airlines work hand-in-glove with the Port Authority and terminal operators to develop a real and meaningful solution so that this situation never happens again. While I remain mindful that foreign airlines are not solely to blame for this situation and that all parties must do better job in protecting passengers, that does not change the fact that foreign airlines will be a critical part of the solution.
I appreciate your attention to this matter, should you need more information please do not hesitate to contact my office.
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey today announced that former U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will lead an independent and comprehensive investigation into the events at JFK Airport during and following the winter storm of Thursday, January 4.
LaHood, who is currently a senior policy advisor at the global law firm DLA Piper, will assemble a team with independent resources and experts. He will examine all aspects of operations including but not limited to the performance of airlines, terminal operators and the Port Authority’s airport management. He will investigate all phases of the event. This will include the preparations and contingency planning leading up to the storm, the snow event itself including the closure and re-opening of the airport, all aspects of recovery operations in the days following the water leak that occurred on Sunday, January 7, and baggage handling. The investigation will include the operational aspects, communications and coordination among various parties, and customer impacts among other things.
Secretary LaHood will begin his investigation next week. He expects to issue his findings and recommendations in a report to the Port Authority in the coming months. He will report any interim findings and recommendations as the investigation progresses.
“The Port Authority is committed to providing the highest standard of service to all travelers, and the series of events following the winter storm this month were completely unacceptable,” said Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton. “We are committed to understanding where and why failures occurred, and making whatever changes are necessary to assure these failures never happen again.”
“The Port Authority leadership has asked me to lead a comprehensive investigation into the recent events at JFK Airport, looking at every aspect of what went wrong and making recommendations about what must be fixed,” Secretary LaHood said. “I look forward to beginning my investigation.”
About Secretary LaHood
Secretary LaHood served as the 16th Department of Transportation Secretary from 2009 to 2013.
His tenure was marked by landmark efforts to improve safety in every mode of transportation, from aviation and rail to pipelines and automobiles. Under his leadership, improvements to America’s infrastructure included building or replacing 350,000 miles of highway, repairing 20,000 bridges and renewing or constructing 6,000 miles of rail track. As Secretary of Transportation, he oversaw an agency with more than 55,000 employees and a $70 billion budget in charge of air, maritime and surface transportation.
Before heading the US Department of Transportation, Secretary LaHood served from 1995 to 2009 in the US House of Representatives on behalf of the 18th District of Illinois and also served on various House committees. He served as chief of staff to US House Minority Leader Robert Michel from 1982 to 1994. He was director of the Rock Island County Youth Services Bureau from 1972 to 1974; chief planner of the Bi-States Metropolitan Planning Commission from 1974 to 1977; and district administrative assistant for US Congressman Tom Railsback from 1977 to 1982.
“A break in a water main at New York's JFK airport on Sunday prompted the evacuation of a flooded terminal, causing backups and delays at one of the country's busiest air hubs just as it was trying to get to normal operations after disruptions from a major snowstorm.” CNN 1/7 “A water main break flooded a baggage claim area at JFK International Airport in New York on Sunday afternoon, compounding flight cancellations and other headaches caused by the cold wave. Water flowed into Terminal 4, soaking stranded travelers' luggage and forcing a partial evacuation of the terminal, the major arrival point for international travelers. Incoming flights to Terminal 4 were shut down for several hours. A pipe feeding the terminal's sprinkler system broke around 2 p.m. ET, sending water into the arrivals and customs inspection areas of the terminal, Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said at a news conference. Power was cut off as a safety precaution. He said the arrivals area and customs office should reopen within several hours.”
Washington Post 1/8
With a forecast calling for a bit more snow and sleet Monday night, scores of flights were still delayed or canceled earlier in the day as one of the nation’s busiest airports tried to untangle a knot of trouble that 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. “What broke down — and it broke down badly — was the coordination between terminal operators and the airlines to assure that there were gates available for the arriving airplanes,” Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told reporters Sunday. The Port Authority owns and operates JFK, although private companies and airlines run the terminals.
A burst pipe, flooded baggage area, confusion between and among the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and the airlines—those are events about which the US DoT and a former Secretary of Transportation know little. There are people with experience in OPERATING AIRPORTS, who know how to respond to a massive flood and who have developed excellent communications with multiple airline tenants. Secretary LaHood’s resume started as a teacher, changed when he worked as a staff member for and then was elected as a US Congressman where he well served his constituents. The DOT writes and knows the rules for treatment of airline passengers.
Likely experts will be added to the team, but starting with those with relevant experience might have been more efficient.
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