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Winds, repairs leave single operating runway at JFK

Strong northwest winds Wednesday created what several airlines described as a worst-case scenario for flight delays at Kennedy Airport now that the airport's busiest runway is closed for several months for reconstruction.

The winds caused the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend use of two parallel north-south runways during the morning. That, along with the continued closure of Runway 13R/31L for rehab and resurfacing, left the airport with just one operating runway for takeoffs and landings.

Departure delays were up to 30 minutes, said Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman in New York. By Wednesday at 1 p.m., three runways again were in use.

The potential for just that situation is one argument that JetBlue, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines have used to argue that they should be exempt from a federal passenger-protection rule slated to take effect April 29.

The U.S. Department of Transportation regulation, known as the three-hour rule, requires that airlines limit to three hours the time a flight carrying passengers is on the tarmac. The provision gives the government the authority to fine airlines for violating the rule. Fines could be as high as $27,500 per passenger, which could run into the millions for a packed domestic-route airliner.

American Airlines, in a petition filed with the DOT, said the "limited departure window" is likely to prompt airlines to cancel flights, which would further inconvenience the public.

The new federal regulation stemmed largely from a 2007 Valentine's Day snow and ice storm that stranded 100,000 Kennedy passengers, some of whom sat on aircraft for as long as 10 hours. After that, JetBlue limited tarmac delays to five hours, and then the DOT adopted the three-hour limit.

Bart Levin, 22, of Los Angeles, was at Kennedy Wednesday after his JetBlue flight home was canceled. The airline earlier sent him an e-mail, he said, blaming the closure of Kennedy's Runway 13R/31L for the cancellation.

Levin said airlines still should have to comply with the new three-hour rule. "I think you just have to schedule more flights," he said.

JetBlue, Kennedy's largest domestic carrier, and Delta Air Lines first sought relief from the new DOT rule on March 4 and 5, respectively. American Airlines followed up on March 12.

JetBlue, in a statement, said that if winds or other conditions cause flights at Kennedy to butt up against the three-hour tarmac limit, "airlines will be forced to return customers to the gate in great number and this will result in thousands of customers grounded with their flights canceled."

But Kate Hanni, of flyersrights.org, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, said the government should hold firm on the new regulation.

"Those air carriers are the three most at cause for congestion in New York even with all runways available," Hanni said. "We hope the DOT denies their request and sets a . . . standard that errs on the side of passengers and their safety."

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