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What Happens When JFK Closes its Biggest Runway?

Welcome to this week’s Today in Travel Question of the Week. A reader recently wrote in to ask about the forthcoming repair work at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport:

“How much will the coming runway construction affect travel at JFK? I have to think there will be lots more delays, and there are already plenty!”

First, here’s a little background. On March 1, JFK is closing down its busiest runway, a nearly three-mile long strip of asphalt that handles roughly a third of the airport’s traffic. The runway will be closed for about four months, during which the asphalt will be replaced by concrete, and the strip will be widened by 50 feet. The concrete surface is expected to extend the runway’s lifespan by 40 years, and airport officials tell the New York Times that the project should eventually save about 10,000 hours in delays per year.

But in the here and now, the concern is that closing JFK’s busiest runway will result in nothing short of chaos, with the already delay-prone airport sinking further into inefficiency.

The most honest answer seems to be that, yes, there will be times of above-average, if not severe delays, but when it comes to saying how severe or how widespread, there’s no real consensus. But as with all things flying, much depends on the weather. The Times explains that the airport’s runways are built at such an angle to provide an easy take-off path regardless of wind direction, and that “in the case of strong easterly or westerly winds, planes would be left with only one option for takeoffs or landings.” 

“The consensus among pilots,” pilot and writer Patrick Smith told me, “is that it’s going to result in some serious delays on those occasions when winds normally dictate the simultaneous use of both runways 31L [the runway that’s closing] and 31R.” JetBlue’s Chief Operating Officer gave a similar prognosis to the Times, saying, “On a couple of days in that four-month period, J.F.K. would only be able to utilize one runway for all arrivals and departures. Those will be very difficult days for everybody at the airport.”

For their part, airlines have begun preparing for the inevitable bottlenecks. “Airlines have been adjusting their schedules in hopes of minimizing disruption,” Smith said, and JetBlue, which flies 152 daily flights from JFK, has already reduced its June schedule by 15 percent, mostly on regional connections.

Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot travelers can do to minimize the impact of these repairs. One thing, obviously, is to avoid traveling through or from JFK until the work is finished. Easier said that done, perhaps—JFK is one of the busiest airports in the world, and a major gateway for international travel. Still, with Newark and LaGuardia in the area, travelers do have alternatives (though it should be noted that neither airport is a stalwart of punctuality).

If you must use JFK, try to depart in the morning, before a day’s worth of delays have compounded into a giant mess. And if all else fails, just bring a good, long book.

Readers, any tips for dealing with massive delays, or thoughts on the JFK runway repair? Leave a comment below, and as always, feel free to post your own travel-related question. You can also send your questions via email . Thanks!

**Update, March 2** Well, things did not get off to a great start. High winds on March 1, the first day of the four-month repair, caused inbound delays of nearly two hours.

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