Monday, March 31, 2014

As trees in Connecticut grow, Westchester County Airport (KHPN) runway trimmed

For pilots landing into a west wind at Westchester County Airport, the first 1,300 feet of the runway is already off-limits because of trees the airplanes must fly over in Connecticut.

But soon, the Federal Aviation Administration may force the airplanes to touch down a few hundred feet farther down the airstrip, even as the county is waiting for a report on how to get more use of the runway, the shorter of two the airport offers.

Vacationers flying on JetBlue, Delta or US Airways use the airport's main runway, not the shorter one, which is called 11/29. But their waits for flights could become longer if more small corporate jets and turbo-prop airplanes are forced to use 11/29, some warned.

"People aren't going to stop going there, they're just going to wait longer," said John Johnston, president of the Westchester Aviation Association.

The FAA first ordered the airport to move the landing line, called a displaced threshold, in 1988 because of the height of the maple and ash trees, the closest of which are several hundred feet from the end of the airstrip. Last year, the inspectors said the trees continued to grow, and the line might soon need to be pushed farther along, said airport general manager Peter Scherrer.

"The last time, they said that, hey, you're getting close; it's tight at the bottom," Scherrer said.

FAA officials told The Journal News only that they continue to monitor the situation.

But Scherrer said a change could come as soon as the next inspection, scheduled for this week, or it could happen in later years. Either way, any change would need to be a significant move, he said. The current threshold stops just before the intersection with the main runway, 16/34. Since markings can't be made in the intersection, the line on 11/29 would have to be moved 350 feet or more, Scherrer estimated.

This comes as the airport prepares to chop 300 feet off the other side of the runway next year to meet an FAA requirement for a safety zone.

"The runway will be so short, it will be only be able to be used by very few airplanes," said Bill Weaver, the head of Million Air, a private-jet service company at Westchester County Airport.

In November, 2011, the county hired McFarland Johnson of Binghamton for $350,000 to figure out what to do with it. That report is expected to be completed soon.

One idea, shifting the runway, would cost $40 million, money that would be difficult to find, said Patty Chemka, deputy commissioner of the Westchester County Department of Public Works and Transportation.

Installing landing guide lights called a precision approach path indicator system may help persuade inspectors to leave the runway as it is, but adding to pilots' abilities to approach on a steady path, especially at night when the trees are hard to see, Scherrer said.

"It would probably buy us some time," Scherrer said. "It's a short-term solution."

For now, the county is holding off on a $12 million project to give the runway its first repaving in 20 years.

Westchester's attempts to coax and even to force the landowners in Connecticut to remove or trim the trees failed years ago. The battle went all the way through the federal courts in the 1990s, and Westchester officials don't intend to try it again.

"We lost that battle at the Supreme Court," Chemka said. "We're not revisiting that now."

On a typical day, only about 5 percent of the airplanes landing and taking off at the airport use runway 11/29, Scherrer said. But it becomes more important when traffic is heavy and air traffic controllers want to alternate the landings and departures. Also, when a strong wind blows from the west or northwest, approaching runway 11/29 from the east allows small planes to land into the gusts rather than fighting a crosswind.

"That's the most important runway for landing when we have heavy winds from the west or northwest," Scherrer said.

While the airport has become popular with vacationers, such commercial flights made up less than 20 percent of the 151,000 landings and take-offs last year, Scherrer said. Corporate flights are the most common by far. It is also used by flight schools and private pilots, who appreciate having the second runway.

"You don't get stuck behind all the jets when you can use the shorter runway," said Dr. Jill Silverman of Yorktown, a psychologist and private pilot who flies single-engine Cessnas.

Taking away the alternate runway robs efficiency by halting operations if there's a problem on the one working airstrip and by mixing different types of airplanes that fly and land at different speeds.

"It's almost like going on the Taconic Parkway and someone's doing 40 miles and hour and someone else is doing 65 and someone else is doing 80," Scherrer said.

If the airport becomes less convenient to use, Johnston said, it would take away from one of the benefits that make Westchester attractive to corporations and other businesses such as flight schools.

"When the pain level gets to a certain point, they're going to say 'Thank you very much,' " Johnston said. "Aviation is a mobile product."

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