Thursday, September 04, 2014

EDITORIAL: What’s in a longer runway?

Go figure. Not all that long ago – maybe five years – the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) was telling us a longer runway is needed so Green Airport could remain competitive and be capable of offering regularly scheduled, non-stop, coast-to-coast service and flights to Europe. It was a convincing argument, especially in view of the state’s economy, high rate of unemployment and Green’s decline of airline passenger traffic.

The mantra was about investing in the infrastructure for the future – the Interlink was part of that – which would create construction jobs now and enable growth in the future. We believe that makes sense, but the often-repeated logic that Green can’t make it without a longer runway has a hallow ring following Tuesday’s announcement Condor Airlines will start providing twice-a-week seasonal flights to Frankfurt, Germany, beginning next June.

Guess what? Condor will be using Green’s existing runways – the longest of which is 7,166 feet. Lengthening that runway to 8,700 feet – a project that will start with a ceremonial groundbreaking next week – won’t be completed until December of 2017.

While pilots will always prefer a longer runway to a shorter one, Condor’s use of Green’s existing system doesn’t mean risks are being taken to bring Rhode Island its first regularly scheduled flight to Europe. There’s no compromise of safety regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t allow for it.

The answer to “how can this be” lies in the type of aircraft Condor will use. It’s a 259-seat Boeing 767/300. It can operate from the existing runway when carrying a full load of passengers and reach Frankfurt. In fact, the jet stream is a big help.

For years leading up to the memorandum of understanding that ended the standoff between the city and RIAC over lengthening the runway, the city argued for no or a shorter extension, saying if the market demand was there for longer non-stop flights, airlines would find a way to fill it. That’s just what has happened.

This is not to suggest the longer runway project RIAC is about to embark upon is for naught. As we said, longer runways are preferable to shorter ones. And perhaps – and hopefully this proves to be the case – more service will follow the pioneering schedule being offered by Condor. A longer runway conceivably will play into those decisions.

But, as we know now, the market, not just the current length of Green’s runways, is a powerful factor.

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