Friday, April 04, 2014

You're clearing for takeoffs? Norfolk International Airport (KORF) seeks 2nd runway


A consultant for Norfolk International Airport once predicted the facility would serve 144,000 flights in 2014.

That won’t happen. Last year, there were only 82,000 aircraft operations – military, cargo and private planes included. The number of arriving and departing passengers fell to 3.1 million, a 12-year low and down from a high of 3.9 million in 2005.

The plummet in activity has not stopped the airport from pursuing a second, parallel runway that could cost nearly $300 million. Officials there say the primary need is not one of demand, but of safety and redundancy in case maintenance or an unforeseen incident shuts down the primary strip.

A parallel runway has been part of plans at Norfolk International for decades and studied at various levels over the years. Airport officials fired up the engines again last year when they issued a call for a consultant to begin a federally required review of the project.

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms highlighted the prospect of another runway in his State of the City speech last month. He said it would draw more investment, jobs and tourists, and he suggested it may help the airport add direct flights to the West Coast and even Europe.

A new runway doesn’t guarantee new flights, said Robert Bowen, the airport’s deputy executive director.

“That’s really a factor of passenger demand within the community,” he said.

A decade ago, officials were pushing for a parallel runway with forecasts that showed it would be necessary to meet growing demand. Those projections proved woefully off-target as airlines merged and cut flights across the industry.

Officials began recasting the need as long ago as 2006. An update to the master plan in 2008 said the addition was required to enhance the airport’s safety and reliability.

Norfolk International has a second runway that crosses its main strip, but it is too short to serve commercial jets, and the cost of lengthening it has been estimated to be greater than that of building a parallel one.

The main runway serves about 98 percent of takeoffs and landings at the airport, Bowen said. In April 2013, LeighFisher, a consultant for the airport, outlined the justification for building a parallel strip. Among the benefits would be the ability to separate different kinds of aircraft on the two runways, which would increase the efficiency of the airport and improve safety, according to an executive summary.

Airport officials also point to the problems and delays that could arise if the main runway must suddenly be taken out of service.

The primary runway was closed for 99 hours of maintenance during all of 2013, according to Bowen. All of that work was done between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., when there were no scheduled flights. Maintenance occasionally has forced a late arrival that was delayed from leaving another airport to be canceled or diverted elsewhere, according to Bowen.

The runway was also closed four hours last year for “aircraft incidents.” Bowen did not have data on the number of flights affected by those closures.

About three years of environmental review is likely before a second runway could be approved and ready for design and construction, which would take another three to four years, according to airport staff. In 2009, a consultant’s report to the airport authority pegged the cost of a parallel runway at $265 million in 2008 dollars.

Bowen said the staff is operating on an assumption that federal money would cover 50 percent of the cost, and that state money and airport revenue would cover the rest, although there are no funding commitments.

Meanwhile, the airport continues to plan for growth in other ways. It recently raised its long-term parking fees to $9 from $7 a day to pay for a parking garage. The new garage would supplant the surface spots that would be sacrificed if the airport carries through with a plan to build a third concourse and add to its aircraft parking apron.