The winter storm that caused chaos at Kennedy International Airport in January roared up the Eastern Seaboard, dumping more than a foot of snow on Boston Logan International Airport and sending water from Boston Harbor flooding onto the airport’s grounds.
The high winds and swirling snow caused Logan, like Kennedy, to shut down for nearly an entire day. But Logan reopened the next morning and operated normally through the weekend — except for having to accommodate six planeloads of passengers diverted there from Kennedy, which remained paralyzed.
The first storm of 2018 created such a disaster at Kennedy that a former federal transportation secretary is investigating all that went wrong. At Boston’s international airport, the storm was a one-day event soon to be forgotten.
At Logan, there were no inbound planes stranded on the tarmac for hours, helpless and awaiting rescue. No scheduled overseas arrivals had to turn around in the air or reroute to other airports. Hordes of travelers were not separated from their luggage for days or weeks.
Why were the experiences at these two major U.S. airports, separated by only about 200 miles, so dramatically different? The answer may be that, though both airports are run by public authorities, they are managed in far disparate ways. At Logan, the Massachusetts Port Authority, known as Massport, maintains near-complete control; at Kennedy, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has shifted much of the management of its terminals to airlines and other private companies, leaving the bulk of the responsibility for dealing with emergencies out of the agency’s hands.
The contrasting approach is evident at a daily gathering in a packed room tucked into one of Logan’s four terminals. Every morning, dozens of airport officials meet there with representatives of airlines and a roster of state and federal agencies to share information that might affect operations: everything from the weather to runway maintenance.
Each of the airport’s 43 airlines has customers to serve and a schedule to keep, but there is no doubt who has the ultimate authority. Ed Freni, the director of aviation for Massport, leads the meetings. Each of the four terminals at Logan has its own manager who reports to Freni.
“Ask anyone at the airport who’s in charge, they’ll say Ed Freni,” said Thomas P. Glynn, the chief executive of Massport.
The daily meetings also foster a spirit of cooperation among airlines that are typically the fiercest of rivals, said Norbert P. Strissel, director of airport operations at Logan for JetBlue Airways. An airline will make one of its gates available to a competitor in a pinch, especially if it is in danger of violating the time limit for keeping passengers in a plane on the ground, Strissel said at a recent meeting.
“We’ve been in that situation in years past, as well as other carriers here at Logan,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, we’re saying go ahead and get that plane to a gate and at least get the customers off of it.”
That is not what happened at Kennedy on the first weekend in January.
Some passengers on a flight from France that landed late on Jan. 5 said they were still aboard when dawn broke the next morning, more than a full day after the storm had swept through the New York area. It was one of several international flights that landed and could not find a gate for hours.
The storm, which had been described as a bomb cyclone, dropped several inches of snow at Kennedy, but the runways had been cleared by Friday morning. Removing the snow was the Port Authority’s business. But sorting out the growing chaos in Terminal 1 was not.
Under Kennedy’s operating model, management of just about everything that happens inside the six terminals is left to the tenants, either airlines that have their own terminals or companies that manage terminals occupied by several airlines. Terminal 1 at Kennedy handles 21 foreign airlines but is operated by a consortium consisting of four of them: Air France, Japan Airlines, Korean Air and Lufthansa.
After the airport reopened that Friday, the airlines, eager to deliver their delayed and detoured passengers to New York, started sending flights to Kennedy. It was up to the terminal’s managers to schedule access to its 11 gates, but they were quickly overwhelmed by the influx of jets.
The experience of Aeroflot, the Russian airline and a tenant at Terminal 1, illustrates how dysfunctional the situation became. At about 5:30 p.m. Friday, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow arrived at Kennedy. But passengers said they were held on the plane for nearly three hours and then had to wait an additional three hours to retrieve their luggage.
That Saturday afternoon, officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey took the unusual step of ordering the terminal closed to inbound flights. That move forced Aeroflot to have a plane that was headed there from Moscow turn back.
The problem had not been solved by the next day, so the Port Authority barred arrivals at Terminal 1 again Sunday. Aeroflot had to cancel two flights that day from Moscow and one from Kennedy to Moscow.
Aeroflot blamed the cancellations on “the complicated infrastructure situation at the JFK Airport and the lack of parking lots for aircraft,” according to Tass, the Russian news agency.
Adding misfortune to misery, on Sunday afternoon, a pipe burst in the ceiling of the arrivals section of Kennedy’s Terminal 4, flooding an area that had been crowded with stranded travelers and baggage. That mess, too, was not the Port Authority’s responsibility but quickly became its problem. The agency sent workers to help out the operator of Terminal 4, a company known as JFKIAT and had to bar it from accepting international flights for hours that evening.
What became of the passengers whose flights were blocked from landing at Kennedy that weekend? Six planeloads of them wound up at Logan, Freni said. Without gates for all of them, airport officials had to close off the end of one of Logan’s runways and park them there, said Todd Smith, Massport’s director of aviation operations. Passengers were then taken by shuttle buses to the international terminal.
The six planes that were diverted to Logan from Kennedy on Saturday and Sunday, Smith said, included an Air Europa flight from Madrid and a Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo. Boston was the second of two unscheduled stops the Japanese plane made. It had nearly reached Kennedy when it was diverted to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. After leaving O’Hare for Kennedy, it was rerouted to Boston, where it stayed overnight while some of the passengers made it to New York by bus.
By the weekend, while thousands of suitcases were piling up at Kennedy, all was calm at Logan. Massport’s fleet of snow-removal equipment, which includes 14 plows with 27-foot blades and a rubber-tracked snow-groomer designed for a ski resort, had quickly cleared the airport’s six runways.
“Top-down management is sort of out of fashion these days,” Glynn said. But, he added, “top-down management works here and it works because people have respect for those at the top.”
Logan, of course, is smaller than Kennedy and handles only a fraction of the international passengers that Kennedy does. But the responses from officials of the Port Authority in the last several weeks imply that the different management structures of the two airports explain much of the gap in performance.
Rick Cotton, the executive director of the Port Authority, has repeatedly apologized and vowed that there would not be a repeat. The agency appointed the former transportation secretary, Ray H. LaHood, to investigate what happened at Kennedy and said it would immediately make several changes in procedures. Among those changes would be to require airlines to notify the Port Authority whenever a plane is not assigned to a gate within 90 minutes of landing.
Speaking to an air-travel industry group in Manhattan recently, the Port Authority’s director of aviation, Huntley Lawrence, admitted that the agency had paid too little attention to passengers. Reflecting back to the 1960s, when the Port Authority first turned management of terminals over to private companies, he said: “No one ever dreamed that meant we would abdicate control of the customer experience at our airports. But we did.”
Now, Lawrence added, according to the text of his speech, “those days are over.”
Cotton said that Port Authority officials would await LaHood’s report, which is expected this spring. But, he added, “if his recommendation is that the Port Authority needs to take a more aggressive role, the Port Authority will take a more aggressive role.”