December 19, 2003
Faulty Doors at Airport Mar Start of AirTrain
By MICHAEL LUO
An AirTrain at the Jamaica, Queens, station on Wednesday. A potential passenger, Alan Sirlin of Valley Stream, on Long Island, peered inside.
Just hours after its high-profile debut, the AirTrain system had to be shut down by the Port Authority for two hours Wednesday night because platform doors failed to open and trapped passengers in their trains.
This came after an earlier mishap, more embarrassing than alarming, when the new train's steel doors closed suddenly on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as he stepped off at the opening ceremony on Wednesday, causing him to stumble while cameras rolled. Coupled with some complaints that the trains were slower than billed, it was an inauspicious opening for the $1.9 billion service linking Kennedy International Airport to local trains and subways in Howard Beach and Jamaica, Queens.
The AirTrain seemed to be running smoothly yesterday, and no additional problems were reported. "These are in essence some growing pains," said Pasquale DiFulco, a spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "It's a brand new rail system that was built from scratch."
At 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, officials shut down the entire system because problems were being reported with the platform doors in several terminals. They were not opening, even as the trains stopped and opened their doors. AirTrain employees had to open the platform doors manually to let the passengers out.
Engineers worked for two hours to understand the problem, Mr. DiFulco said. The system was restarted sporadically, but did not resume for good until 11:30 p.m.
Paul Sheehan, a Manhattan lawyer, arrived in the middle of it all. At 10:20 p.m., he flew into Terminal 6 on a JetBlue flight from Fort Myers, Fla. After being told the shuttle bus to Howard Beach and the A train no longer existed, he made his way to the AirTrain platform.
With about 30 others, he waited inside a train for 25 minutes, he said yesterday, as an electronic announcement repeated in a drone that the train would be leaving "momentarily." An AirTrain employee on the train suggested that someone might have accidentally pressed an emergency strip on the train that forces it into the next station to await police officers, Mr. Sheehan said.
Finally, at 10:55 p.m., the train left the platform, only to move about 20 feet and stop again for another 20 minutes between terminals.
As a woman fussed unsuccessfully with an intercom system to try to reach someone, Mr. Sheehan wondered what to do. No announcements were coming over the public address system.
Suddenly, the train started moving again, pulling into the next terminal at 11:20 p.m., and the passengers got off there. Unsure of what to do next, Mr. Sheehan wandered over to a talkback system on the platform and pushed an information button. No one picked up. Then he pushed the emergency button. After several minutes, an operator answered.
"I explained we were in Terminal 7," Mr. Sheehan said. "We were trying to get to Howard Beach. He said, `I don't know what's going on.' "
Was another train coming?
"I don't know."
Are the shuttle buses running?
"I don't know."
After a few airport employees flagged down cabs for themselves, Mr. Sheehan and some tourists trooped onto a Q10 bus and rode it to Terminal 3, the end of its route. There, they got off and got on another Q10 bus to Kew Gardens, where he caught the E train to 50th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. He took a taxi home to the Upper West Side.
The time was 1:40 a.m., 3 hours and 20 minutes after he landed.
Mr. DiFulco said in an interview that the Port Authority apologizes to Mr. Sheehan and others who were inconvenienced. When the system was first shut down, passengers were taken off the trains and put on shuttle buses, he said. The problems reported by Mr. Sheehan and others are still being studied, he said. At minimum, the information button should have connected Mr. Sheehan immediately to a 24-hour operations center, he said.
What happened to him was more exasperating than anything else, Mr. Sheehan said. When they finally pulled into Terminal 7 and were told to get off the train, he said, most of the exasperated riders just started laughing.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company