Friday, February 24, 2012

Cold Bay's aviation plans up in the air

One of Alaska's rural hubs for air-traffic faces an uncertain future as the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration discuss modifications in Cold Bay.

A number of things are shifting at the Alaska Peninsula airport, including the length of the main runway. In a response to retroactive safety requirements, the DOT is moving the runway's south threshold 235 feet. This adds to the safety zone at the end, but takes away from the overall length of this runway.

At this point, they haven't identified any aircraft currently using Cold Bay facilities that won't be able to continue using the newly shortened 10,180 foot runway when the threshold is moved this summer, said DOT project manager Morgan Merritt.

Cold Bay is a hub for smaller flights transporting goods and people to area villages, and often a stop for flights headed to Dutch Harbor.

March 21 is the tentative date set for a public meeting with DOT officials in Cold Bay to discuss the runway change and a number of other decisions surrounding the community's airport.

Lights out

While Pen Air representative Missy Anderson did say that shortening the main runway would not be an issue for the company at this time, one of the fallout effects of that decision is going to be issue.

When the threshold is moved, one set of the current approach lights will no longer point to the correct landing spot, said Merritt. They'll be shut down as soon as the threshold shifts. At this time the FAA, which owns the equipment, is choosing to shut down the lights without replacing them.

The runway can still operate with the remaining lights in place; however, those additional lights do add a quarter-mile visibility during landing. This potentially creates a situation limiting conditions in which aircraft will be able to land at Cold Bay. Merritt did not think that limitation would be significant, but Pen Air as well as local officials are not convinced.

"We want them to install new lights," Anderson said. "We have submitted a statement that it is not acceptable (not to)."

Merritt estimates the cost of updated lights in the right spot to be between two and three million dollars.

Community balks at reductions

Leaders at the Aleutians East Borough have taken part in discussions concerning the airport since the retroactive decision to change the runway began. While they feel a compromise has been reached concerning the main runway, said borough administrator Sharon Boyette, they are still concerned about the planned shortening of Cold Bay's second runway — the crosswind runway. The discussion in general makes Boyette nervous for the future.

"We are a little concerned in that every time something happens to downgrade the airport it makes it even harder to grow the community," she said.

While residents make efforts to expand seafood exports, including talks to develop live crab shipments straight from Cold Bay to China, they are watching their means of export undergo potential limitations.

"We want to make sure that airlines and air carriers can still come to Cold Bay," Boyette said. "We are still hoping that in the public meeting in March we'll be able to convince the DOT there's another solution to shortening runways in rural Alaska."

She is particularly concerned about large cargo jets, and the continuing effort to get Alaska Airlines to stop in Cold Bay.

Terminal in limbo

One of the primary reasons Alaska Air has given the borough over the years for not stopping in Cold Bay has been its lack of a full service terminal, Boyette said. So, a few years ago, they built one.

Due to visibility restrictions, the terminal had to be built away from the current apron and taxiway. According to Boyette, DOT committed to providing the new apron and taxiway if the borough put up the terminal.

The $5 million terminal building was completed in 2007, and so far, no airplanes can sidle up to it. The upstairs houses flight and weather service staff, but the downstairs is empty.

The borough and Cold Bay residents feel shortchanged as they watch their expensive building gather dust, Boyette said. But Merritt and DOT planning representative Judy Chapman said they will be bringing this issue to the March meeting as well.

"We are starting an environmental document that will include construction of a taxiway and apron," Merritt said. "We are proceeding with ... the design for it and we'll see if between the borough and the state if the money can be put together to build it."

So while progress is being made on paper at this point, financing the project is far enough behind to make the project a thing of the undetermined future.

While the DOT has accepted the building of the apron and taxiway to its list of projects, only a certain number of those projects will rate high enough in necessity to scoop up the federal funds allocated for such endeavors.

"Those funds are highly competitive," said Chapman, "and not eligible for strictly economic development." These funds are federal Airport Improvement Program dollars, and go through a strict checklist before awarded to a particular project.

The Cold Bay project rated low when compared to other projects addressing safety or access issues, so for now, the terminal waits. Either until it jumps up the list of necessary projects, or until alternative funding comes from the state or borough.

Planes will still be flying in and out of Cold Bay — but how long the landing strip, how well it's lit and where you'll be picking up your checked bag is still, up in the air.

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