JFK runway closure likely to cause fare increases and delays

New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport is already prone to delays, with most frequent travelers being able to recall at least one horror story about being stranded at the facility for hours awaiting news of a rescheduled flight.

With JFK's longest runway closed for repairs starting this week, the delays, and air fares to fly into one of the nation's busiest airports, are likely to soar. Fares on some summer flights from New York to Los Angeles, for example, are already double what they were last year.

And impacts of the Bay Runway's closure won't only be felt by travelers flying into JFK, but by millions of others at airports across the country.

"No good will come of this," said George Hobica, creator of Airfarewatchdog.com. "It will probably cause cascading delays. A plane that goes from London to New York will probably not go back to London. If it's American, it will probably go to Chicago and then Los Angeles, so other flights will be delayed too."

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey shut down the facility's longest runway on Monday for a four-month reconstruction project during what it hopes will be the driest period of the year.

The work involves demolishing the existing 14,572-foot asphalt runway, replacing it with an 18-inch concrete overlay, and building new high-speed off ramps that will act as "shoulders" for airplanes to await clearance for takeoff. The runway's width will also increase from 150 to 200 feet.

Airlines that serve the airport, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Port Authority spent months planning for the $376-million project in hopes of reducing its impact on the facility, said John Kelly, a Port Authority spokesman.

Still, industry watchers say that they already are seeing fare increases on some of the airport's most popular routes, including flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas, as JFK's airlines hold the number of flights at winter levels.

This reduction in capacity -- carriers usually increase the number of daily arrivals and departures from 1,050 in the winter months to about 1,300 a day during the peak summer travel period -- means some summer fares are already higher than they were for a similar period last year.

For example, flights from JFK to Los Angeles International Airport this summer are running about $400, compared to $200 for a similar period in 2009, Hobica said. He added that this doesn't take into account the fact that there could be sales this summer and that consumers should sign up for free air fare alerts to get information about reduced rates.

Still, flights from JFK to San Francisco for July are running at $385, compared to $218 plus tax last summer, Hobica said.

Even if you get a flight on sale, you may not be able to avoid delays caused by planes stacking up at JFK. About one third of the airport's traffic and half of its departures will be diverted to three smaller runways, where planes are likely to wait in long lines for takeoff and landing spots.

According to statistics from the Department of Transportation, JFK already ranked 28 out of 31 of the nation's major airports in on-time arrival performance in 2009.

Each day, air traffic controllers at the FAA's operations center in Herndon, Virginia typically keep a close eye on JFK beginning in the early morning hours. Delays there can mean major backups throughout the day at other busy airports across the country.

But Port Authority officials say that the project's silver lining is that the new runway will reduce delays by giving aircraft headed for destinations blocked by bad weather a chance to pull off to allow planes going elsewhere to proceed.

"Ultimately, this is going to be terrific for the airport and the region," Kelly said.

The question remains how long the short term pain will last, especially given that a recent runway closure in Minneapolis caused thousands of delays and went over schedule because of bad weather.

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