‘U.N. Week’ Makes for Some Interesting Logistics at JFK

An NYPD car escorts a world leader’s convoy into the U.N. compound in Manhattan.
An NYPD car escorts a world leader’s convoy into the U.N. compound in Manhattan.

Handling a presidential visit is a logistical and security nightmare for any geographically small area. But New York City’s JFK airport has it down to an art form, perfected over decades as the host airport during what is known as U.N. Week.

As dozens of presidents, prime ministers, dictators and despots converged on New York last week for the weeklong annual General Assembly summit, an array of law enforcement ranging from the local Port Authority police and NYPD to the FBI and Secret Service join forces to secure the approximately 8 square miles in Queens which serves as Bottleneck Central for the arriving heads of state, according to The New York Times.

Altogether, there were 283 so-called “VIP movements” for this year’s summit.

It is not a job for the faint of heart. A typical hour at the airport’s command center involved coordinating the landing of the prime minister of the Czech Republic’s jet along with the departures of the Brazilian and Ukrainian contingents. Making a wrong move that normally angers regular flyers may in this case spark an international incident.

About half the leaders or national delegations come with their own private jets; others fly commercial. Some are driven directly from the plane accompanied by large convoys; others, such as the Moldovan delegation, drive off in a single car.

Every vehicle ferrying the delegates is scanned and sniffed for explosives by Secret Service agents, and is accompanied around the airport by two separate cruisers, one from the Port Authority which has jurisdiction of the grounds and one from the New York Police Department.

Sitting around a U-shaped array of desks, officers of the various law enforcement agencies responsible for the smooth sailing of the JFK ship viewed a large screen in the center of the room that displayed the schedule of the day’s arrivals and departures. And similar to an airport timetable during stormy weather, this one was ever-changing, as delegates got held up in meetings, or decided at the last minute to visit another U.S. city or make a detour to Fifth Avenue for a shopping spree.

The airport only closes its airspace when President Barack Obama or Vice President Joe Biden flies in, usually for only 15 minutes.

Some years can be more complicated and some leaders could be more demanding. Such as former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, aside for causing traffic jams in Manhattan with the inevitable protests that dotted his trips from the hotel to the U.N. building, caused air traffic controllers no small amount of grief on his way into the country.

Ahmadinejad, who left office two months ago, would have his pilots turn off their plane’s transponder as it approached the airport, causing it to disappear from the screen used in the command center to track aircraft, said Lt. Thomas Lomonaco, a Port Authority officer. Or his plane would veer north away from the city “trying to be a little evasive” before landing, he added.

The only demonstration connected to this year’s summit involved Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who flew into Kennedy Airport on a commercial flight last Monday.

A group opposed to Hasina’s policies had received a permit to protest at the terminal, so a group of supporters showed up to stage a counterdemonstration. In the end, airport security had Hasina’s motorcade meet her on the tarmac, bypassing the terminal.

Some snags unique to U.N. Week are the “heavy weapons packages” leaders arrive with. But even more ubiquitous is the heavy amount of shopping containers the diplomats return home with.

As a uniformed crew climbed the stairs to a Brazilian air force jet whose departure had been delayed last Wednesday, each flight attendant was seen toting shopping bags from New York City’s department stores.

“On the way in, it may be a van,” Lomonaco said. “On the way back, it may be a box truck.”

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