JFK Airport Closes Its Primary Runway For 4 Months & What It Means To You

As the old saying goes “today is a new day,” however today for New York’s JFK International Airport is also the start of a four-month project to repave its longest runway, 13R/31L.

JFK’ Runway 13R/31L, at times referred to as “The Bay Runway,” is being repaved with more concrete, which is more durable that its current construction of asphalt, a well as being slightly widened.

You may ask yourself what the big deal is closing one runway when JFK Airport has four runways.  For starters, Runway 13R/31L is often JFK’s primary runway. With a massive length of 14,572 (2.75 miles) is one the 20 longest runways in the world and can accommodate any air traffic, including being designated as an emergency backup runway for The Space Shuttle (the Shuttle Landing Facility, is only 428 feet longer than JFK’s 13R/31L).

The next longest runway at JFK Int’l Airport is 4L/22R which is 11,351 feet long, however its positioning and intersecting with runway 13L/31R (10,000 feet in length) is problematic for tandem usage … which leaves runway 4R/22L (I grew up at the end of 22L), which is a mere 8,400 feet.

8,400 feet … sounds pretty long right? Well not when you factor how many Boeing 747-400s land at JFK airport, and many airlines require a minimum length of 9,000 feet for the 747, if not 10,000 feet for revenue service to an airport.

So, where does this leave JFK for four months?   It leaves the airport already plagued with significant delays and congested taxiways. For four months JFK Airport will have to deal with new delays and new flight traffic patterns.

New delays are problematic not only for flights on the ground at JFK but also for their destination airports.  Airlines only make money when a plane is in the air flying, so if a flight is delayed in New York it gets into San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, London late. Upon arriving late in these cities passengers may miss connections, the flight is turned around on a delayed schedule and heads back on its next leg late and these delays stack up costing airlines millions of dollars.

To deal with these new delay factors a number of airlines, including the airports largest operators, JetBlue, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have begun to institute two primary measures. The first measure is to increase the padded travel time. By adding time onto the flight ‘block time’ the airlines are more likely to officially arrive and depart on-time. The second measure that impacts travelers is airlines reducing their operated flights by 10%.  Reducing flights is great idea to reduce congestion and delays … however for passengers it also means fewer seats.

If you’re flying you know what less seats means don’t you? It means higher airfares. If airlines reduce seat capacity by 10% they have the ability to raise airfares quite a bit during this time period.

Given all these factors, why would a major airport such as New York’s JFK International Airport choose a peak travel season to close its primary runway for four months? Simple, this is the driest season for the airport and paving the runway is best done under dry conditions.

Steve Abraham, an Air Traffic Controller at JFK Int’l Airport is quoted as saying “It’s like renting a car in England, you know how to drive, but you’re driving on the other side of the road” in regard to the Tower creating new traffic patterns for the airports aircraft traffic.

In the scheme of things 4 months is not a long time in comparison to the life span of the runway and the airport having access to at least two additional runways capable of handling the airport’s largest regular scheduled traffic.

Below a diagram of JFK Airport’s runways with the primary runway, 13R/13L circled in red.

Happy Flying!

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