Even as it became clear that last week’s bomb cyclone in New York would be as bad — or perhaps worse than expected — many international flights were already on their way to New York John F. Kennedy International Airport, dispatched hours before by airlines gambling that they’d make it.

Usually it works out. The weather clears, and the plane that left Taipei or Hong Kong 15 hours earlier lands without incident. That’s often true even when domestic airlines like JetBlue Airways or American Airlines cancel many of their flights because airports tend to find a way to accept long-haul arrivals over the flight from Buffalo, New York.

But that’s not what happened at JFK. Instead, the airport closed for a longer-than-expected period on Thursday afternoon into Friday morning, and long-haul flights had to go to Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or even Newburgh, New York, sometimes at airports not prepared to accept them.

When flights were cleared to return to JFK, things got worse, and the airport is still dealing with the fallout. The airport, the fifth-largest in the United States by passenger count, was not prepared for the onslaught of flights all arriving at roughly the same time from the diversion airports. There were not enough gates for the arriving jets, and planes blocked each other on taxiways, causing traffic jams.

Passengers became testy, and airline employees often didn’t have much information. Airlines didn’t know for sure when they would get a gate, or when passengers would be reunited with their luggage. The entire airport was a mess well before Sunday, when a water main broke at Terminal 4, spewing water into the arrivals area,

Now that the airport has resumed mostly normal operations, the finger pointing is beginning. Why was the meltdown so great? And what’s the airport operator — the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — planning to do about it?

“What happened at JFK was completely unacceptable and we will investigate what went wrong and prevent it from happening again,” Port Authority Executive Director Rick Cotton said.

JFK Operates Differently

But as passengers have learned recently, JFK doesn’t operate like a typical U.S. airport, and that may make it difficult for the Port Authority to ensure there’s no repeat of recent events.

At many airports, the airport operator is in complete control as both a terminal landlord and controller of some, or all, of the gates — especially the ones used by international carriers with only one or two flights a day. But that’s not how it works at JFK. Instead, one airline, groups of airlines, or private operators control each terminal and the gates.

That’s why American Airlines, which controls Terminal 8, has had relatively few problems over the past week. It was prepared for the poor weather, managed its gate space effectively, and kept its few international tenants, including Qatar Airways, running smoothly.

At Terminal 1, operated jointly by Air France, Lufthansa, Japan Airlines and Korean Air, it was different. The terminal, which also handles Aeroflot, Air China, Norwegian Royal Air Maroc and Turkish Airlines, which pay rent, had nowhere near enough gate space to accept all the diverted arrivals, as well as the regularly scheduled flights that came in between Thursday or Monday.

And even when flights had gates, airlines didn’t always have enough workers to unload bags, part of a problem the Port Authority blamed on, “frozen equipment breakdowns, difficulties in baggage handling, staff shortages, and heavier than typical passenger loads.”

Bad weather will almost aways cause friction at an airport. At a typical airport, an airline that couldn’t get into Terminal 1 might receive help from the airport operator to go to an open gate at another terminal. But that’s difficult at JFK, because each terminal has its own owner and only accepts airlines that pay it for gate space.

With no available gates on Saturday at Terminal 1, when the airport was otherwise open, and when American operated 70 of its 79 departures from Terminal 8, some JFK flights were not permitted to land, including Royal Air Maroc 200 from Casablanca, which instead went to Philadelphia. Some arrivals on Sunday and even Monday were also delayed to ensure “adequate gates for arriving flights,” mostly at Terminals 1 and 4, according to the Port Authority.

The Port Authority has promised to improve in the future, but it’s not clear exactly how it will do so, since it does not control the terminals.

“The Port Authority will aggressively examine the coordination and preparation by airlines, terminal operators, and Port Authority staff to assure, in particular, that international flights not experience international gate congestion similar to what occurred this weekend,” it said.

The Port Authority is also promising to investigate Sunday’s apparently cold-weather related water main break at Terminal 4, used by by 34 carriers, including Delta Air Lines.

But there, too, the airport doesn’t control the facility. In 1997, Terminal 4 became the first privately owned terminal in the United States, according to its website. It’s now owned by Schiphol USA Inc., part of the Schiphol Group, which controls Amsterdam’s main airport.

Still, the Port Authority is talking tough. In its statement, in addition to promising an investigation, it said three airlines in Terminal 4 — Air India, Etihad, and Emirates — were not doing enough early this week to help passengers. Officials told the airlines their rebooking operations were “unacceptable and must be improved.”

Photo Credit: Passengers near baggage claim at JFK Airport Terminal 4 during the January 6-7 weekend. The airport had trouble recovering from a snow storm last week. David Grossman / MilesTalk.com