Image: JFK cursed?
Some passengers say JFK just can’t do right, claiming the congestion, failed slot auctions, runway closures — and now kids in the tower — are all symptoms of a greater ill that plagues the airport.
By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist contributor
updated 3/5/2010 9:54:56 AM ET 2010-03-05T14:54:56

Is New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport cursed?

It is consistently ranks as one of the worst airports in America. Air travelers go to great lengths to avoid it. One of its runways is closed, adding to the misery. And now, it’s at the epicenter of more bad publicity — this time from an air traffic controller who allegedly let his children radio instructions to pilots.

“In years past, when I flew into JFK, I had to worry about inclement weather, delays and cancellation, ice on wings and birds getting too close to the engines,” said Lisa Hanock-Jasie, an online consultant in New York. “Now I gotta worry about kid air controllers? Geesh.”

A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which runs JFK, did not return a call requesting a comment.

JFK’s most obvious problems are its delays, of which there are many.

And they predate the closing of runway 13R-31L, the airport’s longest and busiest, which is out of commission through July while three miles of asphalt are repaved.

Back in the summer of 2007, the federal government found the slow-downs at New York’s airports so intolerable — it estimated that the number of flight delays and cancellations had increased an eye-popping 111 percent in a decade — that it commissioned a study to address the problem. The resulting report proposed a series of initiatives designed to address the region’s persistent delays, including an auction of landing slots.

Last spring, the government scrapped the auctions.

Chris McGinnis, a frequent user of JFK who edits a newsletter called The Ticket, sums up his thoughts on the airport in two words: “No likey.”

“To me, it’s an embarrassment as a American to have it be the first impression of our country that so many visitors get upon arrival,” he said. “And it’s equally bad for international departures, so it leaves them with a bad taste about America.”

Customer surveys suggest passengers agree with him. Like this 2007 TripAdvisor survey, which asked the site’s members which airports they disliked the most. JFK came in third, topped only by Chicago O’Hare (the worst) and Atlanta Hartsfield International. Or this 2010 J.D. Power & Associates study, which ranked JFK as one of the worst major airports, with only four other big airports scoring lower.

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“Without a doubt, if it goes bad in general, it goes a lot worse at JFK,” said frequent JFK passenger and New York resident Brian Donaldson.

Getting to the airport can be a challenge. Whether it by car, on the always-crowded Van Wyck Expressway, or by AirTrain JFK, the relatively new 8-mile rail connection that shuttles passengers to New York’s subway and the Long Island Railroad. “Just don’t be at the Jamaica station after dark,” said one New Yorker in an online forum, echoing a warning that is frequently heard. “It’s not a safe area.”

The terminal experience leaves something to be desired, too. Annie Peiser, a sales director for a New York-based corporate travel agency, called JFK “super crowded,” adding, “I find it next to impossible to find a porter to help with bags when getting out of a taxi. I’m also mystified as to how the lines to drop off baggage are just as long as the check in lines.”

But there are degrees of bad at JFK. For example, a search of JFK on the popular review site Yelp shows Terminal 4 is very unpopular among travelers. One disgruntled passenger writes: “Words cannot express how much I hate JFK airport as a whole.” Says another, “This has to be one of the worst airports/terminals I’ve been to.”

Terminal 4 is home to several international carriers, including Air India, LAN Peru and Virgin Atlantic. Video: Experts’ take on kid air traffic controllers

JetBlue Airways’ new Terminal 5 is different story. Its Yelp reviews are glowing. “Oh my God, I need to be committed, because I have fallen in love with an airport,” raved one passenger. “Normally I am not a fan of JFK,” writes another. “This new terminal though is pretty awesome.”

JetBlue probably deserves a break. After all, it was also the scene of its biggest public-relations disaster in its young history, when several of its aircraft were stuck on the tarmac in the Valentine’s Day Storm of 2007. Passengers were trapped on planes for up to 10 hours, and in the resulting fallout, the airline’s chief executive, David Neeleman, was forced out.

Does anyone have something nice to say about JFK as a whole? “The parking options are good,” ventures David Lavenda, a marketing executive who lives in Israel. “Access to rental cars is easy, too.

Generally, my experience has been the airport is much less congested than LaGuardia Airport, but a hassle to get from terminal to terminal.

I would still take it over LaGuardia if I had a choice.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Slideshow: Cartoons: Danger in the air

Talk to passengers, and they’re more likely to tell you that try as hard as it may, JFK can’t do right. The recent news — the congestion, the failed slot auctions, the runway closures and the kid in the tower — it’s all a symptom of a greater ill that plagues the airport.

“Cursed?” asked John DiScala, the normally upbeat editor of the site JohnnyJet. “Of course, it’s cursed! It’s the worst major airport I’ve ever been to.”

DiScala recites the familiar litany of complaints: Its confusing, counter-intuitive layout. The difficulty in reaching the airport from the city, regardless of your means of ground transportation. And, of course, the tarmac delays.

“I once landed from France and the pilot said we were early, but due to traffic and congestion, we were told we will have to park between one and four hours,” he remembered. “Four hours! After an eight hour flight!”

Turns out they had to hold less than an hour, which DiScala believes was just a clever way of making 45 minutes seem shorter. “I try to avoid JFK whenever I can,” he adds.

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Video: Kids directing planes outrages FAA, NTSB

  1. Closed captioning of: Kids directing planes outrages FAA, NTSB

    >>> investigation uncovered.

    >>> but we begin with more on the fallout over the controller who let not one, but two of his children direct one-way traffic at jfk . nbc's tom costello covers aviation for us. tom, good morning.

    >> reporter: hi, meredith. the aviation world is really divided over this one. this morning we know a little bit more about the controller who is in hot water with the faa. he is glenn duffy, a veteran controller who spent time in both the jfk and newark towers. he was on the job and presumably very much in control, but we now know he let his son and then the next night, his daughter, relay commands to pilots preparing to depart. february 17th , 4:17 p.m . the rush is on at jfk airport in new york . and a child's voice comes across the radio.

    >> jetblue 57, contact new york departure.

    >> jetblue 57. thank you, good day.

    >> that's the next generation of air traffic controller going here.

    >> reporter: it's the controller 's 8-year-old daughter, the same controller who the day before let his 8-year-old son radio instructions to pilots.

    >> jetblue 171, clear for takeoff.

    >> clear for takeoff, jetblue 171.

    >> this is what you get, guys, when the kids are out of school.

    >> wish i could bring my kid to work.

    >> reporter: all of it recorded by

    >> 0-3 clear for takeoff.

    >> 403 clear for takeoff. thank you very much and you have a great day.

    >> air mex 403, contact departure. adios.

    >> contact departure, aeromexico 403. adios.

    >> contact departure. adios amigos .

    >> reporter: it sounds fun and harmless, but this take your child to work day is no laughing matter to the faa.

    >> this, in my opinion, is just a lack of common sense and a total disregard for the safety of the people on the airplane.

    >> reporter: jfk handles 1,100 flights each day, 48 million passengers each year. at jfk , mixed feelings about what happened, from a passenger --

    >> i'm a parent and i think that's really irresponsible, seriously. he could have caused a lot of trouble.

    >> reporter: and a 20-year-old veteran pilot.

    >> nothing happened to the planes that took off and i don't see a problem with that at all.

    >> reporter: it was just last year that a new york air traffic controller at laguardia was being heralded as a hero.

    >> tower, stop your departures, we've got an emergency returning.

    >> reporter: patrick harden reacting to a us airways plane landing on the water.

    >> get me the police department helicopter if you got one right now.

    >> reporter: now today a jfk controller is in deep trouble over what experts call a serious lapse in judgment.

    >> frankly, this is shocking to me. this is probably one of the most egregious violations of the federal aviation rules and regulations , let alone the effect it will have on the flying public.

    >> reporter: well, as we said yesterday, both the controller and the supervisor on duty are suspended, and effective immediately, all unofficial tower visits are suspended as well. meredith, back to you.

    >> all right, tom costello, thank you. we are joined now


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