Hurricane Irene Caused Air Travel Woes

 - October 4, 2011, 12:05 AM

At the end of August, the Caribbean and the East Coast of the U.S. again faced the wrath of Mother Nature, this time in the form of Hurricane Irene. The first major hurricane of the 2011 season, the Category 3 storm weakened to a Category 1 as it slowly moved up the East Coast, but it still caused extensive flooding and stirred up powerful storm surge tides. In advance of its arrival, cities such as Philadelphia and New York shut down their airports and mass transit systems.

As Irene rolled up the coast, millions were left without power, and air travel in the busy East Coast corridor was disrupted, causing a cascade effect throughout the U.S. and abroad. According to the Air Transport Association, as a result of the storm, airlines cancelled approximately 10,000 flights, stranding countless travelers.

Business aviation saw considerable disruptions. According to NBAA, those companies reporting to its GA Desk saw a 40-percent decrease in operations on Sunday, August 28, over the previous average Sundays as operators prudently avoided flying in the poor weather.

Flood Damage at TEB

Airports in the metro New York area sustained the worst impact as the storm made landfall on Sunday morning, August 28. Teterboro Airport (TEB), the nation’s busiest business aviation destination, closed late on Saturday, August 27, hours before the storm’s arrival. “We had started telling FBO managers to encourage their customers to either hangar their aircraft or fly them out, and by Saturday afternoon the ramps were virtually empty,” said Pam Phillips, TEB’s manager of airport operations and security. “Everybody heeded the warning,” she added.

Despite the airport closure, the FBOs at the airport maintained their staffing to monitor the storm effects and to answer customer queries. Meridian, for example, had its full-time staff on hand the entire weekend, according to Kirk Stephen, the FBO’s marketing manager. He told AIN that in the run-up to the hurricane’s arrival the company’s air charter division “received a lot of pop-up trip requests to move people from affected areas.” Any aircraft that was not chartered was moved into the hangar to wait out the storm.

While Irene’s decreasing wind speeds caused little damage at the airport, the amount of rain the storm brought to an already saturated area caused major problems. According to Phillips, Teterboro suffered significant flooding. All of the airport’s four runway touchdown-zone elevations are eight feet msl or less. “We probably had three-quarters of the airport under more than two feet of water.”

After the storm passed on Sunday, a survey of the airport showed that the west side of the field–which includes the Atlantic, Signature and Meridian FBOs–had received the worst flooding. While the facilities suffered little damage, the floodwaters rose in some cases right up to the building doors, covering their ramps and parking lots.

The area also lost power, necessitating that operators switch to emergency generators. The airport’s aircraft rescue and firefighting facility located nearby experienced water damage significant enough to force its relocation to a hangar at the opposite end of the airport.

By Monday afternoon, the floodwaters had receded enough to allow the airport to open briefly for daylight departures. To prevent long-distance flights from arriving at the airport after dark, Teterboro officials delayed opening for arrivals until Tuesday morning. “One of the biggest battles we had with reopening was not just getting our runways and taxiways back, but also being able to test the lights,” said Phillips. “Even on Monday night we had about three inches of standing water inside the lighting vault, and although the runways were clear of water at that point, we couldn’t test to see whether we could turn the lights on.”. During the night, the lighting vault drained to the point that the airport’s lighting system could be tested the following morning, and TEB was allowed to reopen fully. Phillips estimates the airport lost approximately 600 operations during the 55 hours it was closed.

Teterboro’s lost business was Westchester County Airport’s (HPN) gain. As it turns out, the airport–located little more than 20 miles from Teterboro–didn’t get the predicted winds or the flooding that Teterboro did. However, before the storm hit, the mixed-use airport north of New York City suspended operations out of caution. “We closed based on the forecast, so we basically told the airlines that we were going to shut down all services to the terminal building at 6 p.m. on Saturday and that we weren’t expected to open for full operation until 3 p.m. the following Monday,” said Peter Scherrer, the airport’s manager. “Most of the airlines said they were happy we made that decision for them because it was easier for them to schedule accordingly.” GA tenants at HPN either sought shelter for their aircraft indoors or flew them to locations farther from the storm.

“The tower vacated at 9 p.m. on Saturday and didn’t come back online until late Monday morning,” said Scherrer, who noted the uncontrolled-field status did not deter GA flights eager to return to the New York area. “By the time [the airport’s FAA-operated tower] opened again, we probably had a good two-dozen arrivals.” The aircraft began arriving at 4:30 a.m., and they didn’t stop until nearly all the available asphalt at HPN was occupied. “We were closing run-up pads; we were closing everything down,” Scherrer told AIN. “We were inundated with airplanes, which helped the FBOs because they didn’t get any business for almost two days and all of a sudden they just made up for it.” From 7 a.m. through 11 p.m. on Monday, HPN saw 584 arrivals, with a peak of 75 airplanes landing between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. alone.

The airport was so crowded that it had to issue a ground stop that afternoon, according to Jamie Kane, an air traffic management specialist who worked the storm as part of NBAA’s GA Desk team. “So many people were trying to get back into the New York airports,” she said. “Teterboro was closed and Morristown was accepting only three aircraft an hour, with prior permission required.”

Despite all the service interruptions, Irene’s storm clouds did have a silver lining, according to Ernie Stellings, the manager of NBAA’s GA Desk. “The only thing that helped a little bit was that it was a weekend,” he said. “Had it been during the week it would have been a much bigger problem.”