Saturday, January 04, 2014

Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport (KAVP), Pennsylvania

FAA commits to airport landing lights overhaul

PITTSTON TWP. - The landing lights at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport will return.

The Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to either fix or replace the plane-approach lighting system, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey announced Friday.

"The FAA plans to pursue a solution that will ensure safe and reliable flights in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area as well as safe working conditions for FAA personnel," FAA administrator Michael P. Huerta wrote in a letter to Casey.

Full restoration of the lighting remains at least a year away, Huerta wrote.

The system remains out of commission, shut down since February because of its shakiness and burned out bulbs, airport director Barry Centini said. Without the lights, pilots must start taking over landing of a plane at least a mile away rather than a quarter mile and much higher in the air to avoid aborting a landing, Centini said. Part of the system, a large steel framework with strobe-like lights that flash when a plane lands, is visible to Interstate 81 travelers.

Casey portrayed the commitment as essential to ensuring the airport's health, which is critical to boosting the region's economy.

"We don't want planes landing at that high of an altitude without this kind of guidance, without this kind of assistance, that we've come to rely upon ... for probably two or three generations," he said. "The second (reason) is basic as well. If we have certainty with regard to this system, we can make sure that we have the kind of economic growth that we need that only an airport can provide in a region."

Without the lights, planes are likelier to abort landings, airport officials said, although they could not cite specific instances of commercial flights doing that since the lights were shut down. It has occurred with smaller, private planes, an FAA official said.

"It's a very important component of the instrument landing process," said Mike Dennis, the FAA's air traffic manager at the airport. "A pilot depends on instruments for most of the descent, but then takes over visually when he gets within a certain amount of feet above the ground. There's what's called a decision height. If he doesn't visually take over and see the airport by that decision height, he's got to execute a missed approach and go somewhere else."

That's where the lights come in. They help pilots spot the airport.

Centini credited Casey for pushing the project onto the FAA's list of top 25 projects for construction.

"Without the support of the senator, ... we'd just be a number on the board in the pecking order," he said.

Centini estimated the project would cost $3 million to $4 million, all paid for by the FAA with no local money necessary. He said the FAA had considered not restoring the system at all.

"In their process, they looked at whether it would be needed, could they remove the system completely and they found that because of the size of this airport, the activity of this airport, that this is one of the navigational aids that is important to have at this facility," Centini said.

FAA officials are expected to begin meeting with Centini and other airport officials about the project this month, Casey said.

"They're looking at a replacement of the entire system or a partial replacement if they could salvage anything," Centini said.