JFK water pipe bursts, disrupting international flights, spurring on investigation

Passengers exit after a water pipe ruptured in Terminal 4 at JFK airport, Sunday, Jan. 7.
Passengers exit after a water pipe ruptured in Terminal 4 at JFK airport, Sunday, Jan. 7. Photo Credit: Louis Lanzano

The Port Authority will launch an investigation after a massive water pipe broke at Kennedy Airport on Sunday, diverting all incoming international flights away from Terminal 4, and worsening an already plagued weekend for the airport.

The busy international hub was plunged into chaos as three inches of standing water collected inside Terminal 4 just before 2 p.m. on Sunday, a Port Authority spokesman said, compounding the extensive delays from nearly 100 canceled flights Saturday.

“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.”

It was the latest in a slate of service failures since Thursday’s powerful snowstorm crippled flights into and out of JFK, leading to major delays and crowded tarmacs and terminals. Lingering delays continued Monday morning, the airport said.

All incoming international flights were suspended Sunday afternoon, the Port Authority spokesman said. Passengers on seven flights that were already at the gate were taken off the planes, and the inner roadway at the arrivals area was closed off.

The entrance to Terminal 4 was packed Sunday evening, with a large area cordoned off as workers mopped a layer of water so thick it reflected the lights from the sirens whirling outside. The line for taxis appeared to be closed Sunday evening.

The baggage claim area was packed with people sitting down or leaning against walls as airport employees told them to come back later in the evening or Monday morning to collect their luggage.

An airport official said workers struggled to turn off the water from the cracked pipe because it broke near the handle. The pipe burst because of the frigid temperatures near the Central Diner restaurant in the arrivals area, the official said.

Hours later, airport employees had started to open up sections on the other side of the terminal.

The pandemonium added to Saturday’s turmoil in which 94 flights were canceled, baggage claim machines froze, passengers were stranded on the runway for hours after landing, and the wing of one plane hit the tail of another.

Sen. Chuck Schumer on Sunday called on the Port Authority to complete a thorough review of what went wrong.

“When it’s cold, as cold as it was, you cut the airport a little slack. But what happened at JFK was way beyond cutting a little slack,” Schumer said, speaking at an unrelated news conference Sunday. “It seemed almost everything broke down, it seemed like a disaster. Whether it’s runways not being plowed, whether it’s the baggage machines that transport the baggage freezing, whether it’s not notifying people what’s going on … It seems almost everything that could go wrong went wrong, including two planes actually colliding.”

Schumer said the frigid weather shouldn’t have surprised the Port Authority, which oversees operations at JFK, and noted that future cold waves are guaranteed.

“They should have been much, much better prepared, plain and simple,” he said. “JFK has to follow the Boy Scouts motto: Be prepared. They weren’t.”

Customers complained Friday and Saturday that they waited as many as six hours on the tarmac before their planes docked at a gate, and as long as eight hours to collect their baggage from carousels. Others awaiting departure spent the night sleeping on terminal floors, photos showed.

“This is, on scale of 1 to 10, this is a zero. This is horrible,” said Monica Pierre, a registered nurse from Staten Island, who was waiting on Sunday for her luggage after flying in from Trinidad and Tobago. She said she was willing to wait until 10 p.m. to get it. “There should be more emergency planning. This is America, not a third world country. I understand there was a huge snowstorm, but that’s not a reason to not have proper planning.”

Astoria resident Melissa Olivar, 19, has been trying to get to Mexico with her family. Her flight has been canceled twice: once on Thursday because of the storm and then again on Sunday.

“We were crying because we were so upset,” she said.

On Saturday, the Port Authority said in a statement that the FAA closed Terminal 1 to incoming flights after 7 p.m., delaying flights from reaching gates at Terminals 1 and 4. Among the 1,008 arrivals and departures that day, there were 94 canceled flights, the agency said on Sunday.

Adding to the bedlam, the right wing of a China Southern Airlines jet clipped the tail of a Kuwait Airways plane early Saturday morning, stranding passengers on each aircraft, according to the Port Authority. No injuries were reported and passengers were “safely deplaned,” said Alana Calmi, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority. Calmi called the collision “minor.”

Inside the terminal, the disorder continued when Virgin Atlantic tweeted that police had to be called to a gate it was sharing with XL Airways Saturday night because passengers caused a “disturbance.” Sunday morning, travelers were still complaining to XL about delays and customer service.

“Mood is getting mutinous at the gate. I don’t envy the @XLAirways_NA staffers at the desk,” user @bhsutton tweeted.

In a statement Sunday morning, the Port Authority said Saturday’s “extreme cold, amid the ongoing recovery from Thursday’s storm, created a cascading series of issues for the airlines and terminal operators. 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.”

With Shaye Weaver and Nicole Levy

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