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Will JFK Runway Closure Create a Summer Air Traffic Jam?

If your summer travel plans involve the New York airport, bring something to read just in case.
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Big crowds, bad weather and the most congested airspace in the nation: If you’re flying in or out of New York‘s JFK International airport this summer, you can now add a fourth potential challenge to your travel plans and peace of mind.

A runway that handles a quarter of JFK’s traffic will be closed all summer – the airport’s busiest season -- creating the risk of travel delays at an airport already notorious for long waits. Travel to and from JFK, which handles 50 million passengers a year and is the country’s number one airport for international travel, peaks during July and August.

The runway, 4L/22R, closed in April to be widened and lengthened and will remain closed through late September. According to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the airport, the $457 million renovation is meant to enable the airport to handle larger planes, including Airbus 380s, and to satisfy FAA-mandated safety-zone requirements.

The FAA said in April prior to the closing that it did expect delays because of the construction. But the Port Authority maintains that JFK can operate at near-full capacity with the remaining three runways. That may not provide much reassurance for travelers given the airport’s already horrendous reputation for delays. In 2014, fully 25 percent of JFK arrivals were delayed, according to Department of Transportation figures, one of the worst performances at the country’s 30 busiest airports. Earlier this month, statistics whiz Nate Silver crunched the numbers and named JFK the second-worst in the nation for delays between May 2014 and April 2015. Only another New York City airport, LaGuardia, was worse.

So far, however, there have been no construction-related delays. The Port Authority and the airlines have made operational changes to accommodate the new runway configuration. American Airlines, for example, has adjusted block times (i.e., the time from departure gate to arrival gate) and shifted flight schedules so fewer flights land during peak hours.

“We haven’t seen any impact whatsoever,” said American spokesman Matt Miller. “It’s been a great collaboration between us, the FAA and the Port Authority.”

Aviation analyst Bob Mann also says he thinks the Port Authority has done its due diligence. “You can only do this work when the weather permits; unfortunately, that coincides with a period of peak traffic,” he said. “All things considered, I would judge that the PA has considered all the options both in terms of what’s feasible by time of year and the demands that are placed on the airport during that time of year.”

"It’s probably a place you don’t want to be anywhere near.”

The real test, however, will take place in the coming weeks and months as the summer travel season kicks into high gear and JFK turns into a hub for Europe-bound vacationers. If the weather goes bad — as it often does — and additional runways get closed, no amount of schedule adjustment will prevent delays from multiplying.

Travelers got a glimpse of that scenario in March when a previous stage of the construction project forced the airport to limit operations to a single runway. “I was waiting to pick up my wife, whose flight was delayed over an hour,” said software executive Michael Pryor, who used the extra time to ascertain that the construction project was to blame. “It was super frustrating.”

And given the complex nature of the region’s airspace, problems at JFK can quickly spread to other local airports.

“JFK's various runway usage configurations will have an effect on LaGuardia, Newark and Teterboro (New Jersey),” said Phil Derner, founder of the aviation website, “A normal weather event can force JFK to use a runway configuration that can easily shut down Teterboro due to airspace issues and put Newark and LaGuardia onto their own capacity-limiting configurations.”

For its part, the FAA has created a temporary plan that entails adapting procedures to handle regional traffic, especially when the weather deteriorates. In a statement to NBC News, the FAA said that the agency “will use various runway configurations and air traffic procedures at the major New York area airports to help minimize congestion that may occur during the construction.” The agency’s plan will almost certainly come into play as temperatures start to climb, creating ideal conditions for the region’s notorious afternoon thunderstorms.

Ultimately, says Derner, the construction project is just another challenge in what is already a challenging situation: “I don’t see any of the delays we’d see would be because of the runway project itself but they could be exacerbated a little by any limitations in the runway configurations they can use.”

For travelers, it all points to taking a “hope for the best, prepare for the worst” approach when flying in and out of New York this summer. “It’s going to be a little more stressful for passengers but that’s just summer,” said Derner. “Even if the runway project wasn’t going on, people would be stressed.”

Michael Pryor, on the other hand, is a bit less sanguine. “On a good day, JFK isn’t great,” he told NBC News. “With one runway closed, you can only imagine what will happen if other things go wrong. It’s probably a place you don’t want to be anywhere near.”