Saying the airport is operating at limited capacity, Luis Muñoz Marín Airport and government officials urged passengers with confirmed flights to go to the airport, which has a significant backlog of traffic in the wake of Hurricane María.
Puerto Rico’s main airport facility suffered significant structural damage and has been operating on power generators since after the Category 5 storm ravaged the island last week.
“With the passage of Hurricane María, all of the radars that manage air traffic were destroyed. The San Juan air control center doesn’t have communication to manage air space,” said LMM General Manager Agustín Arellano during a news conference.
He explained that the lack of radar availability limits communications with aircraft in San Juan to a 30-mile circumference and 10,000 feet in the air. Consequently, the airport is limiting commercial air traffic to between 10 and 12 flights a day, and aid relief traffic.
“We’re trying to prevent a security issue. A mid-air collision or a near-miss that could put people’s lives in danger,” he said. “That’s why we’ve been operating on a limited basis.”
Airlines currently providing flights out of San Juan are American, United, Southwest, Spirit, and jetBlue. However, they are only flying out once or twice a day, on bigger aircraft to get more people out, Arellano said.
“What we’re telling passengers is that if they don’t have a confirmed reservation, to not come to the airport,” he said.
However, since after the hurricane, thousands — about 5,000 a day — of travelers have flocked to LMM, to try to get out. Of those, about 350 have had to stay overnight at the airport, which currently is operating with 21 generators that are not “being used for the comfort of passengers, but for critical operations,” Arellano said.
The situation has caused chaos at the airport, as once they arrive, travelers do not want to leave their place in line to catch the next flight out, he said.
“Each airline has about 20,000 passengers on stand-by right now,” Arellano said. “It’s going to take us between five and six days to bring those lists down by flying out about 10,000 passengers a week.”
Airport officials confirmed they are working to double the number of flights out of LMM starting Tuesday, depending on the conditions of the radars.
“If that doesn’t improve, we have to continue as we are,” he said. “But so far, we have five jetBlue flights, one United flight, two Spirit flights, two Delta flights and one American Airlines flight scheduled for Tuesday. Southwest is supposed to resume service on a greater scale on Wednesday.”
During the news conference, Arellano confirmed that the airport suffered structural damage to two of its four terminals — B and D — where roofs were torn off. Terminals A and C are fully operational, as are public and airport security areas manned by the Transportation Safety Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Arellano said the airport has yet to assess Hurricane María’s economic blow to the facility.
LMM officials are working with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to possibly restart international flights on Wednesday, Arellano said.
“We have Copa, Avianca, Iberia and Volaris pending to restart Wednesday,” he said.
As to the issue that arose Monday regarding the fact that airlines continue selling tickets to and from Puerto Rico, which have been mostly subsequently canceled this week, Tourism Co. Executive Director said the agency has no jurisdiction over that matter.
That responsibility falls on the Federal Aviation Administration, which Arellano said could likely respond to customer complaints.
“What could happen also is that the FAA issues an executive order to stop selling new seats until they take care of all of the passengers they have stranded in San Juan,” Arellano said, noting 82 percent of the airport’s traffic is to and from the U.S. mainland.