Repairs May Add to J.F.K.’s Delays

The average delay at Kennedy International Airport lasts more than an hour; one in every five flights left late last year; and its performance ranks in the bottom third of major American airports.
And that is before its biggest runway shuts down.

Starting in March, Runway 13R-31L, the war horse of Kennedy’s four, will close for four months of repairs. At 14,572 feet, the runway is the second-longest commercial landing strip in the country — and it handles a third of the airport’s total air traffic, including more than half of its departures.

The shutdown, part of a continuing project to reduce delays at the airfield, will mean fewer flights out of New York on major carriers like Delta and JetBlue, particularly in June, the traditional start of the summer rush. It could increase delays at an airport already notorious for long waits: Of the 46 most frequently delayed domestic flight routes last spring, half involved an arrival or departure at J.F.K..

And travelers may want to hold up a finger before heading to the terminal: Winds coming in the wrong direction for the other runways could create serious backups on the tarmac.

“This can’t be good,” said Joe Brancatelli, a commentator on business travel who runs the Web site joesentme.com. “Nothing ever works the way it’s supposed to in New York.”

The shutdown comes as the nation’s air travelers brace for new security precautions that could cause further delays at the gate. And any problems in New York have the potential to ripple around the country, just as problems in Atlanta or Chicago, for example, have been known to delay flights from coast to coast.

But officials at Kennedy, and several of the airlines that serve it, insist that the situation is not likely to be a problem and that the long-term benefit will be fewer delays.

“I can’t tell you there won’t be issues — there probably will be a few — but we’re doing an awful lot to prevent them,” said Susan M. Baer, Kennedy’s director of aviation.

All the major carriers at Kennedy agreed to delay the start of their heavier summer schedules until July 1, a month later than usual, to accommodate for the loss of the runway. A handful of flights will be rerouted. And the timing was deliberate: The period from March to June is traditionally the lightest of the year at Kennedy, and the drier weather conditions are more favorable for air travel.

The runway is getting a spruce-up that, authorities say, is long overdue. It was one of the original runways at the airport when the first commercial flight took off there in 1948. And 13R-31L has long been known as the Bay Runway, after its picturesque path along Jamaica Bay. It carries about 140,000 flights a year and the bulk of the airport’s long-haul traffic.

At nearly three miles long, the runway, if necessary, can even handle the space shuttle. (NASA is aware of the imminent closing, an airport spokesman said.)

Its current asphalt surface will be replaced by more durable concrete, which is expected to extend its life span by 40 years. The runway will also be widened by 50 feet to accommodate larger, more advanced aircraft, and lighting and electrical systems, some dating back decades, will be updated.

Airport officials say that the renovations will eventually help prevent more than 10,000 hours of delays a year.

Kennedy’s four runways rarely operate simultaneously, a fact that officials cite when saying they expect minimal delays at the airport despite the lower runway capacity.

But a runway closing last year at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport created thousands of delays, despite similar flight reductions. There, the closing was timed for late summer and early fall, a slower travel time for airlines and a period of drier weather in the Midwest.

“What actually happened was we had one of the rainiest Octobers on record in the state of Minnesota,” said Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the airport, which handles about the same amount of traffic as Kennedy and also has four runways. The delays, he said, were “astronomically higher than we would normally see.”

At Kennedy, officials acknowledged that certain weather conditions could worsen any problems. Its runways are built at crossed angles so that planes can be assured an easy takeoff path, regardless of wind direction. The Bay Runway is the airport’s preferred east-west runway; in the case of strong easterly or westerly winds, planes would be left with only one option for takeoffs or landings.

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