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Don’t let chaos fly again at Kennedy Airport

Tired Avianca passengers wait for flights at Kennedy

Tired Avianca passengers wait for flights at Kennedy Airport Terminal 4 on Monday, Jan. 8, 2018. The Port Authority said it will investigate a water pipe break that added to the weather-related delays all weekend and will "hold all responsible parties accountable." Credit: AP / Richard Drew

Five days of chaos at Kennedy Airport generated delays and difficulties at airports worldwide and trapped thousands of passengers at the international gateway to New York on planes, in lines at customs and in terminals, one of which flooded as luggage piled up.

The Port Authority must find out what went wrong.

How does an international airport that handles nearly 60 million passengers a year fail so miserably, in so many ways, to adequately handle the aftermath of a snowstorm?

It’s a question no one can fully answer yet, but the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which leases, operates and oversees the airport, must do better.

The cascade of horrors started with the blizzard Thursday, which led to a suspension of flights until Friday morning. But when flights resumed, the number of planes coming in, particularly large planes flying internationally, outpaced the number of gates that could handle them, and a backlog began.

With equipment frozen and too few workers on hand, the problems worsened.

Then, very early Saturday, two planes clipped one another, causing damage to both — and further delays, which seemed to grow exponentially through the day. Extreme cold caused further equipment malfunctions and problems. When it appeared that nothing more could go wrong, a pipe burst Sunday afternoon in Terminal 4, flooding it with several inches of water.

Throughout, passengers at the airport and on the airplanes complained of a lack of communication, and that the Port Authority and Kennedy Airport’s social media updates, explanations and alerts were often limited and not timely.

The Kennedy Airport ordeal, which occurred mostly at its international terminals, leaves many unanswered questions: How did all of those flights converge without a plan or gate space? Should the Port Authority have gotten involved in restricting incoming flights sooner than Saturday afternoon, when it first reached out to the Federal Aviation Administration? Why couldn’t luggage be located? Why did two planes collide? How did an internal pipe in a heated terminal burst? And how did a lack of coordination and communication contribute to the mess?

Port Authority officials plan a review. Such an investigation must encompass a broad look at Port Authority and airport policies and procedures before, during and after hazardous weather, and it must result in a public report with detailed recommendations. Investigators must look at the role of every entity, from the private terminal operators and the airlines to the FAA and the Port Authority itself. In the meantime, the agency has to look for ways to improve airport preparation before storms, and its communication during and after them.

Port Authority officials are quick to point out that the airlines and terminal operators handle connecting planes with gates, and that the terminals are privately operated. While that might make sense for day-to-day needs, like food concessions and general customer service, the Port Authority should consider having a way to take charge in an emergency. Ultimately, it’s responsible. The Port Authority must not divert this flight. — The editorial board