San Juan airport remains crippled by Hurricane Maria damage

A woman fans herself as she stands in line with other travelers at Luis Muoz Marn International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 25, 2017.
A woman fans herself as she stands in line with other travelers at Luis Muoz Marn International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 25, 2017. Bloomberg

Puerto Rico’s major airport is open — but just barely. Only a dozen commercial flights departed San Juan’s Luis Marín Muñoz International Airport Monday, and airport officials said the prospects for Tuesday at the hurricane-battered facility aren’t much better.

As hundreds of sweltering passengers mill about an airport with only limited lights and water, only a few flights are able to leave in the daylight hours, to which commercial traffic is now limited in San Juan.

And many of those are leaving with scores of empty seats because the airport computers that control baggage and issue boarding passes are still out five days after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, hampering the terminal’s ability to move passengers around.

With so little equipment working, each passenger’s reservation had to be confirmed with a phone call to Miami.

“People who are flying down that way should not expect the same conditions as before the hurricane,” said a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, with considerable understatement.

Most of the radar and navigation equipment damaged by the storm is up and running again, the FAA said.

But one long-range radar site on a mountaintop inside a national park remains down — and will stay that way until technicians using chain saws can hack their way two miles through an impassible wall of down trees and storm debris, the agency said in an update on conditions issued late Monday afternoon.

And not all the restored equipment is functioning at maximum efficiency. As the hurricane approached last week, the FAA moved a contingent of its air-traffic controllers for long-distance flights to Miami to stay out of the storm’s way.

But because those controllers are working from Miami instead of San Juan, the FAA is imposing additional safety restrictions, allowing a plane to take off only every 15 minutes.

“We are bringing in additional equipment on a daily basis, and our people are working like crazy,” the FAA spokesman said. “But we still have a radar system down, and we need more ability to communicate. Everything is being hampered by the lack of power — we’re working with electricity supplied by emergency generators, not regular commercial power lines.”

Even with improved infrastructure, though, commercial airliners would still be operating on a much-reduced schedule. The federal disaster-relief agency FEMA has reserved the vast majority of the airport’s greatly curtailed service for military and civilian relief flights.

Nearly a hundred aircraft were in the sky around San Juan Monday, but just a dozen of them were commercial flights. And the few commercial flights leaving San Juan are sitting on the runway for as much as three hours before being allowed to take off.

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