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Exclusive: Problems with runway lights at JFK Airport

Investigative reporter Jim Hoffer has the story.
February 20, 2014 3:02:29 PM PST
The Port Authority insists they'd never operate runways or taxiways if it were unsafe.

But sources working at JFK say the massive electrical system is so corroded by years of storms and poor maintenance that they fear a major meltdown.

From above, everything looks fine with the miles of lights that guide airplanes on JFK's runways and taxiways.

But it's below ground sources tell Eyewitness News where years of neglect eat away at the electrical system.

Exclusive video shows signs of disrepair everywhere from cables overheating underground, to main taxi-ways that are pitch black for long stretches. In this case you can see how the taxiway's critical green center line disappears into darkness. Not just one, but two key taxiways still open with serious outages.

"We know we have a problem," said Thomas Bosco, the Port Authority Aviation Director.

The Director for Port Authority Airports blames the salt water from Storm Sandy 16 months ago for the airport's current electrical problems, but he insists the taxiways and runways are operating safely.

"We wouldn't do it if it wasn't safe. Not idea and you're right it is a serious problem and that's why we're working 24/7 to correct it," he adds.

Former commercial airline pilot Bob Ober who built a career landing big airplanes at JFK says out of service lights can disorient pilots.

"Critical absolutely critical yes, you cannot operate in low visibility or at night without an adequate lighting system," said Ober.

Our investigation has discovered the problem extends beyond taxiways. Last month, JFK experienced a power outage forcing it to close one of its main runways for 30 hours, forcing a halt to departures.

"Oh we were having a meltdown," said Stephen Abraham, a JFK Controller.

Stephen Abraham adds the power failure created serious gridlock.

"We went through periods of time up to 45 minutes at one point during the day where nobody departed. Airplanes kept landing but nobody left," he adds.

Daily FAA alerts to pilots suggest a wide-spread problem. In the last 4 months, JFK posted 76 notices for "Out of service" runway and taxiway lights. That's five times more than the similar-sized Chicago O'Hare airport which had only 16 alerts for lighting problems.

Bosco says that's not a fair comparison. "I'm not familiar with Chicago. I can only talk about Kennedy and I can tell you that we have the best electricians in the world and have saved us on numerous occasions when we've had hurricanes," he said.

We've also learned that in a recent FAA inspection, JFK got hit with 10 citations for safety deficiencies, half of those for lighting maintenance. More than LaGuardia and Newark combined.

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