New York JFK International Airport experienced a cascade of operational calamities in terminals 1 and 4 over the weekend, as it struggled to deal with extremely cold weather and a water main break that caused extensive flooding, flight delays and cancellations.
According to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PATH)—which operates NY JFK as well as Newark Liberty (EWR) and LaGuardia (LGA) airports—at approximately 2 p.m. EST Sunday, Jan. 7, a water pipe that feeds Terminal 4’s sprinkler system broke, causing water to flood the T4 passenger arrivals hall. Social media images depicted piles of luggage surrounded by water, as well as passengers walking through the ankle-deep deluge.
PATH said power to the affected areas of the terminal was shut off for safety reasons. Seven international flights were at gate at the time of the incident, PATH said, but passengers from the flights were able to deplane and were processed through customs.
In a statement, PATH said it will launch an investigation into the water pipe break, which caused the suspension of inbound international flights to T4. Departing international flights continued, but with delays, as were domestic arrivals and departures from T4, also with delays.
JFK’s T4 is managed by a private operator, JFK International Air Terminal LLC (JFKIAT), which is owned by Schiphol USA Inc., a US affiliate of Amsterdam-based Schiphol Group. JFKIAT has operated T4 since 1997.
JFKIAT said Jan. 8 the water main break on the west side of the arrivals hall impacted 10 incoming flights to T4, adding the terminal “was completely operational within four hours after the water main break as a result of JFKIAT working closely with local agencies and authorities as well as on-site emergency maintenance personnel. As of 9:45 p.m., all flights resumed normal operation.”
Nonetheless, the T4 operator said “there remains a residual backlog of baggage left at the terminal as a result of the winter storm and the water break.” Passengers were advised to contact their carriers in order to retrieve their bags.
“What happened at JFK Airport is unacceptable, and travelers expect and deserve better,” PATH executive director Rick Cotton said. “While the water pipe break that occurred appears to be weather-related, we have launched an investigation into the incident to determine exactly why an internal pipe was not weather-protected and whether any other failures contributed to this disruption … we will hold those responsible accountable for any shortcomings we find.”
Flight tracking website Flight Aware reported JFK Airport had 621 delays and 106 cancellations Jan. 7.
Prior to the flooding incident, JFK Airport was forced to close Terminal 1 at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 6, as “extreme cold, amid the ongoing recovery from [the Jan. 4 blizzard], created a cascading series of issues for the airlines and terminal operators,” PATH said in a Jan. 7 statement (prior to the T4 water main break). “These included frozen equipment breakdowns, difficulties in baggage handling, staff shortages, and heavier than typical passenger loads. These challenges left passengers on planes for extensive periods, as the airlines and terminal operators experienced delays in getting aircraft in and out of gates.”
PATH said the FAA, working with the Port Authority, airlines and terminal operators, diverted 17 flights. Already landed aircraft experienced extensive delays in reaching gates, particularly international flights at terminals 1 and 4. PATH said it provided buses to bring passengers to the terminal from 25 planes at terminals 1 and 4.
Compounding problems related to the flooding and extreme cold, two Boeing 777s—belonging to Kuwait Airways and China Southern Airlines—clipped each other on the tarmac outside T4 Jan. 6. Kuwait Airways posted on its Twitter page that evening that Kuwait Airways flight 118 was damaged in a collision with the China Southern 777 while parked, causing the airline to cancel the flight to Kuwait. A social media post from the Port Authority Police Department (PAPD) showed the PAPD’s aircraft rescue fire fighter unit responding to the incident, saying the China Southern 777’s wing tip struck the tail end of the Kuwait Airways 777, causing damage to both aircraft. Kuwait Airways said all passengers and crew deplaned without incident.
The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told ATW it had been notified of the incident by FAA, but decided the agency will not open an investigation, saying “the damage is not considered substantial,” according to the NTSB spokesperson.