MIAMI — As the home of JetBlue, JFK’s Terminal Five is a busy, high-tech, and demanding machine. With 27 gates, soon expanding to even more with the T5i expansion project, it takes teams of highly attentive employees to keep the terminal moving day in and day out. While JetBlue is still recovering from a rough and cold start to 2014, the ops and control center ensures that the airline’s JFK operation runs smoothly, even if passengers never know it exists.
Last month, I joined JetBlue for a tour of the behind the scenes operations at the terminal, from the depths of the JFK operations center to the highest points in the ramp control tower. Below the concourses, the JFK operations and control center is a rather small room, but one that controls virtually everything.
When you first walk in the windowless room, four monitors display the vital stats. Flight loads, passenger standby totals, average taxi time, and weather radar; it’s all there at a glance. On the day of my visit, the operations and control center was staffed by about ten individuals staring at monitors, making quick phone calls, and manipulating the wall of video cameras in front of them.
Robert Rosenbaum, General Manager of Station Operations for T5, was on hand to explain what his team deals with on a daily basis. The ops center ensures that the catering truck gets to the aircraft, moves an aircraft to a deicing pad if necessary, and keeps tabs on the boarding process to prevent a flight from being late, among many other things.
Adding to the complexity of JetBlue’s JFK operation is the challenge that all international flights actually arrive at terminal 4. Because T5 does not (yet) have a customs facility, aircraft must first park at T4, unload, and get towed back over to T5. The JFK ops center shuttles more aircraft between T4 and T5 then some airports deal with actual flights in an entire day.
When I asked Rosenbaum what his team deals with more so than any one other task, he laughed and looked around the room. “Delays codes,” he answered. When a flight is delayed, a corresponding code describing the reason must be entered into the system. If a flight is slow to board, the aircraft went mechanical, or anything else really, a delay code is entered. The tricky part is that nobody ever wants a delay to be attributed to them. Ultimately, the ops center makes the call on the code, and life moves on.
Out of the basement and above the roof line, the ramp control tower dictates every single aircraft movement in the realm of T5. When an aircraft lands at JFK, ramp control assigns a gate number for the aircraft to park at. When an aircraft is ready to push back, they may only do so once someone in the ramp control tower gives the go ahead.
Jesse Alverio is a Station Controller in the tower, one of the few in charge of aircraft movement during the time of our visit. Alverio says that most employees up in the tower started their careers at JetBlue down on the ramp as baggage handlers or other ramp-side operations, and work their way up.
Working in the ramp control tower is a serious job, one where mistakes can have lasting effects. If an aircraft is brought into the wrong area, it can create lengthy delays in remedying the problem, delaying the aircraft, and others, for the rest of the day. It’s a high stress, fast moving job which requires constant communication with pilots on the move.