Aviation News

April 23, 2015

Updated: Could Runway Closures Mean A Summer of Misery at JFK?

Updated 4/22/15: as of 7:00am this morning, the full length of Runway 13L/31R has reopened to all aircraft. A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) flight inspection aircraft is scheduled to re-validate the ILS 13L approach later today. This reopening marks the completion of stage 2 of the Runway 4L/22R reconstruction project. 

Tomorrow morning, stage 3 of the project will begin. The full length of Runway 4L/22R will close until at least September. During this time, the southeastern 3,263 feet of Runway 13R/31L will also be closed. NOTAMs (NOtices To AirMen) are pending for both of these closures. The pending NOTAMs show the closures lasting until December 9th, however that is believed to be the worst case scenario. Previous documents released by the FAA and PANYNJ have indicated that these closures would be through September 22nd, with an additional 15 days to be added to that date do to the delayed start to the construction in March (see below). 
Updated 3/8/15: This winter’s heavy snow, along with an issue with the concrete mix had caused a delay in the start of work for the summer. As a result, the 40 day closure of Runway 13L/31R has been pushed back to March 15th. This 15 day delay is likely to ripple throughout the remainder of the project, however some amount of recovery is possible. 

On Sunday, March 1, 2015, Runway 13L/31R at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport will close for 41 days. This will mark the beginning of a summer of runway closures and restrictions for the airport that won’t end until nearly the end of September. The closures are needed in order to accommodate the ongoing reconstruction of Runway 4L/22R.

Goals of the Reconstruction Project

There are several primary and secondary goals of this project. The primary goals involve the reconstruction of the runway, including the addition of new features which are intended to improve operations at the airport, or which have been mandated by regulators and congressional action. The secondary goals are mainly focused around the post-Sandy rehabilitation work that is needed. They are being undertaken during this construction project in order to minimize impact to the airport in the long term.

Chief among the primary goals is the replacement of Runway 4L/22R. The existing 150 foot wide, asphalt paved runway will be replaced with a 200 foot wide, concrete runway. This widening will allow the runway to better accommodate Group VI aircraft, namely the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-8. Other work in this realm includes the widening of adjacent taxiways, as well as enlarging the fillets (curved areas) where the taxiways meet the runway, to allow operations by these Very Large Aircraft (VLAs).

The second primary goal involves the lengthening of the runway by 728 feet at the northeast (22R) end. This lengthening will allow the airport to comply with a congressional mandate for overrun areas that goes into effect at the end of 2015, while maintaining the current usable runway length. This lengthening will effectively move the threshold of Runway 22R a few hundred feet to the northeast, while the 4L end will also be offset in the same direction.

Adjacent to the runways, several new taxiways will be constructed. At the northeast end, taxiway construction will allow access to the newly lengthened pavement. Midfield, a pair of high-speed taxiways will be constructed. These will allow the runway to safely handle more aircraft operations per hour.

During the runway reconstruction project, upgrades will also be made to navigational aids and lighting systems.

They will also use the time that the runway is closed to install a total of four prefabricated shelters. These shelters house the glideslope and localizer equipment for Runways 4L and 22R. The existing shelters were flooded during Superstorm Sandy, and the replacements will be protected against flooding. A precision approach path indicator (PAPI) lighting system for Runway 22R and runway end identifier lights (REIL) for Runway 4L will also be installed.

History of the Reconstruction Project

The project to reconstruct Runway 4L/22R began in the summer of 2014, with Stage 1. For this portion of the project, 1,171 feet of runway at the northeast (22R) end was closed to all aircraft. This closure allowed a portion of the reconstruction work to begin, along with the construction of the 728 foot extension. During this period, several facilities that obstructed the area of the extension were also relocated. This includes a section of North Boundary Road near the airport perimeter.

Since construction began, the entrance to Runway 22R was moved from Taxiway FB to taxiway YA. Similarly, the last exit point from Runway 4L has also been Taxiway YA. While this phase of construction was completed in December, 2014, The runway has remained in its shortened configuration throughout the winter.

JFK Runways

Impact of the Project on Operations in 2015

Beginning on March 1, Stage 2 of the construction will begin. The entirety of Runway 13L/31R will be closed for 40 days, until April 9th. Runway 4L/22R will remain open, however it will be further shortened to Taxiway F. Then, beginning on April 10th, Stage 3 begins. This involves Runway 4L/22R closing down entirely until September 21st. During Stage 3, Runway 13L/31R will be shortened past the intersection with Runway 4L/22R.

While the airport, FAA, and airlines have worked together to mitigate the impact of these closures, inevitably there will be some substantial impact on airport operations. The closures have been designed so that three runways are always available. At times, JFK operates using three runways for departures and arrivals, utilizing a split configuration. This is particularly true during the summer months when peak traffic levels are experienced. However, depending on weather and operational conditions, as few as one runway may actually be usable at some times.

During Stage 2 of this project, expect to see the majority of arrivals use Runway 4R/22L while departures use 4L/22R and/or 31L. Provided that weather and operational considerations allow it, this configuration will allow the largest number of aircraft movements and the fewest delays. Potentially, the number of aircraft movements possible should be close to what is possible during normal operations.

The worst case scenario during Stage 2 of construction is if only Runway 13R/31L is available for use. Any situation where an airport the size of JFK is limited to the use of a single runway is going to cause significant delays for both arriving and departing traffic. This exact scenario was witnessed recently, when snow removal operations left only Runway 31L available for about 45 minutes. Many aircraft were placed into extended holding patterns, and several either diverted to other airports or began to divert until a second runway reopened.

Another difficult scenario during Stage 2 would arise if the so-called “last resort” ILS 13L approach was needed. With 13L closed and 13R not equipped with an ILS, aircraft would be forced to use Runway 4R/22L. Under this scenario, expect a significant impact on operations. Historically, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey officials have found the ILS 13L approach is rarely used during the month of March. However, it has occasionally been needed during winter weather in that month.

Stage 3 of the reconstruction will see the use of Runways 13L and 22L for arrivals and 13R for departures become one of the best choices for operations. Another best-case scenario would be aircraft arrivals on 31L and 31R with departures from 31L. These two configurations can operate through construction almost exactly as they would during normal operations, and have the highest aircraft movements of all normal runway configurations under most meteorological conditions.

Of course, any situation where only Runway 4R/22L can be used will be the worst case scenario during Stage 3 of construction. That runway is furthest from the terminals, and will require both inbound and outbound aircraft to cross the area under construction.

Top image courtesy Joe Mabel. Used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Ben Granucci, Standards Editor, is an aviation enthusiast and plane spotter based in New York City. Growing up in Connecticut, he has had his eyes toward the sky for as long as he can remember. He can be reached on Twitter at @BLGranucci or through his blog at Landing-Lights.com.

About the Author

Ben Granucci
Ben Granucci, Senior Editor, is an aviation enthusiast and plane spotter based in New York City. Growing up in Connecticut, he has had his eyes toward the sky for as long as he can remember. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.



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