Thousands of Nassau County residents can expect to see more jets bound for Kennedy Airport overhead - and hear the noise that comes with them - starting today and for weeks to come as the airport closes its busiest runway for reconstruction.
The planned four-month closing of Runway 13R/31L, which runs 2.75 miles along the northeast shoreline of Jamaica Bay, means air traffic controllers must lean on Kennedy's three remaining runways to handle traffic.
Aircraft now will have to rely more frequently on Kennedy's two north-south runways - the ones that air traffic controllers call "the 22s" and whose approaches take them over homes like the one owned by Mary-Grace Tomecki of Floral Park, who knows what it's like to put living-room conversations on hold because of jet noise.
"I would certainly anticipate the communities of Floral Park, Mineola and Garden City should expect an increase in volume of traffic into JFK," said Tomecki, a village trustee who is a member of the Floral Park Noise Abatement Committee and is among residents briefed by aviation officials about the upcoming changes in flight paths.
Jim Peters, a spokesman in New York for the Federal Aviation Administration, confirmed that more flights would use approach routes that would put them over Nassau County communities such as those Tomecki identified.
"We have to use the available runways to bring traffic in and out. That's the bottom line," Peters said. "Communities may see an increase."
The reliance on runways 4L/22R and 4R/22L means more arriving flights will pass over some central and eastern Nassau communities more frequently than when the bayside runway, which runs east and west, is in operation.
Thousands of flights shifted
The runway that will be out of service for 120 days handled an average of 2,065 arrivals per month between January and August last year, according to Tomecki, who as a member of the noise-abatement committee receives runway traffic reports from the Port Authority.
Figuring a month of 30 days, that averages out to nearly three arrivals per hour that have to be shifted to other runways at Kennedy or other area airports through the end of June. In 2008, it handled more than 143,000 takeoffs and landings.
The reconstruction, the runway's first since 1993, will replace the strip of blacktop with more durable concrete. The $376.3-million project is also intended to reduce flight delays and will include resurfacing and widening of the runway and taxiways, along with new drainage and electrical systems and navigational lighting.
In Nassau, residents of the areas affected by the change in flight patterns may notice the increased air traffic more in the evenings.
The time frame of 6 to 10 p.m. is an especially busy time for international arrivals and departures, said Greg Lopez, an air traffic controller who worked in Kennedy's tower for more than a decade and now works at the TRACON center in Westbury. Lopez, who lives in Franklin Square, is a representative for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, the controllers' union.
"You're going to see constant arrivals on the 22s," Lopez said, with more flights at a lower altitude over certain communities.
Many jets will be at an altitude of 2,000 feet as they fly over a wide swath of central and western Nassau, he said. That's only about 550 feet higher than the Empire State Building's spire.
Typically, pilots of flights using instruments to land will begin a queue over Nassau's North Shore in the Glen Cove area and cross over North Valley Stream, a slice of southeastern Queens and the Belt Parkway before hitting one of the runways, he said.
In January, officials with the FAA and the Port Authority met with municipal officials and representatives of the Town-Village Aircraft Safety and Noise Abatement Committee to discuss the runway work's impact on towns near the airport. Representatives from Inwood, Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Valley Stream, Atlantic Beach and Long Beach are represented on the board.
Noise a big concern
Linda Dersch, of the Floral Park Noise Abatement Committee, said the briefing with airport officials prepared residents for the runway rehab project. The residents' goal was to make certain that "constant noise" wasn't a daily fact of life during the runway work, she said.
"They are at least open to our concerns," Dersch said. "In four months, ask me how I'm doing."
Both Tomecki and Dersch said FAA and Port Authority officials talked about juggling runway use and varying flight tracks to minimize the noise impact of the increased traffic.
Susan Baer, director of aviation for the Port Authority, which operates Kennedy Airport, said last month that the scheduled closing of the bay runway is on target.
Preparation has included erection of a concrete plant near the runway so that work can be done faster, and equipment is being delivered by barge so that truck traffic won't interrupt plane traffic on taxiways.
The Port Authority considered keeping the runway open during the day and closing it at night for the work, Baer said. But that would mean the reconstruction would continue for much longer than four months, she said.
"We found that taking a couple of months of pain was worth it," Baer said.
Airlines flying into Kennedy, such as JetBlue, Delta and American, have reduced their flight schedules during the reconstruction, and the work was planned to take place before the busy summer travel season, Baer said.
While somewhat fewer jets will fly into Kennedy during the bay runway's closing, the new runway configuration means more planes will fly low over Tomecki's home, seven miles from the airport.
She finds it hard to carry on living room conversations when jets pass, and she pauses in any telephone talk until the noise lessens. Residents of Elmont, which is closer to the airport, cope with rattling china closets, she said.
"Monday is ground zero for us," Tomecki said.
For fliers, the runway improvement at Kennedy Airport should eventually mean shorter flight delays.
But what about in the next four months?
The answer will be playing out over the next few days.
Airlines have tried to adapt: JetBlue, Delta and American decided to stick to their winter schedules until July instead of their customary practice of boosting the number of flights in April and May. For JetBlue, the biggest carrier at the airport, that means an average of 150 departures compared with a normal summer schedule of 180, a move the airline has said should help alleviate congestion.
Airlines are also adding time into their schedules. So although flights may take longer, more won't necessarily be considered late.
Still, with about one-third of JFK's traffic and half of its departures being diverted to three smaller runways, it seems clear that at least some planes will wait on longer lines on the ground for takeoffs and in the air for landings.
Mike Sammartino of the Federal Aviation Administration expects delays at JFK will be about 50 minutes at peak and 29 minutes on average - similar to busy summer days.
- Staff and wire reports