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JFK runway closure prompts increase in cost of flight fares

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Fares have risen since one of the nation’s longest runways was shut down at John F. Kennedy International Airport since March 1 and airlines await a decision on requests for exemptions from rules providing ruinous fines for tarmac delays that the carriers see as inevitable.

JetBlue, American, Delta and Continental airlines, which fly out of Kennedy, have requested exemptions from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Continental has also asked for such exemptions at LaGuardia and Newark airports, both of which the airline said have been ensnared in congestion caused at JFK by the runway work.

Airlines are concerned about federal DOT rules requiring airlines to pay a fine of $27,500 per passenger traveling on jetliners delayed on the tarmac more than three hours.

The regulations, which take effect April 29, followed several incidents in which passengers were held in grounded planes many hours without adequate food, water and properly working toilets.

“We are reviewing the requests for exemptions and expect to announce a decision shortly,” said William Mosley, a DOT spokesman.

With the arrival of the summer travel season, airline fares normally rise, but fares have risen much earlier due to the shutdown of JFK’s runway 13R-31L, popularly known as Bay runway. The runway handled one third of the airport’s flights before closing for the four-month project.

Airlines have pared down the number of flights and with less availability, fares have gone up.

New York-Los Angeles average fares have gone from $211 to $400, according to airline watchdog Web sites.

Some airline rights advocates urged the federal DOT to deny the airlines’ exemption requests.

“The DOT secretary should deny these airline requests out of hand and direct FAA Administrator [Randolph] Babbitt to meet promptly with the airlines and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey to require the airlines to realistically schedule airline operations correlated to available JFK runway capacity during this construction period,” FlyersRights.org told the DOT.

The advocacy organization said the Federal Aviation Administration had failed to control over-scheduling and that the agency should require airlines to reduce their scheduled operations to avoid multi-hour departure delays.

In normal times JFK is perpetually at or near the top of a nationwide list of airports with the worst delays. LaGuardia and Newark are close by. The ripple effect from the delays spreads over much of the nation.

The latest round of delays is all the result of the $376 million project to modernize and improve JFK’s main runway, which is nearly 3 miles long.

The Tutor Perini Corp. of Framingham, Mass., began work March 1 on a project to replace the runway’s asphalt surface with 18 inches of concrete and widen the runway from 150 feet to 200 feet. Workers will also widen taxiway intersections and create greater taxiway access to enable more efficient aircraft movement. New runway lighting and electrical infrastructure and new electrical feeder systems will also be installed.

The work is scheduled to be completed by June 30.

At 14,572 feet, the runway is one of the nation’s longest and handles one-third of all flights at JFK. It dates back to the beginnings of Idlewild Airport, which was dedicated by President Harry Truman in August 1948 and rededicated as John F. Kennedy Airport following the former president’s 1963 assassination.

Reach contributing writer Philip Newman by e-mail at timesledgernews@cnglocal.com or phone at 718-260-4536.

Updated 5:54 pm, October 10, 2011
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