Saturday, September 17, 2016

Amid maintenance, Dickinson airport plans for future

The oil boom took a toll on the Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport with more frequent traffic and heavier aircrafts the runways were not built to support.

As a result, the airport will be closed for both general aviation traffic as well as commercial travel for an entire weekend as it conducts routine repairs as part of a large-scale, future operation to better equip the airport to handle heavier planes. The airport will be closed from Friday, Sept. 30 to Sunday, Oct. 2.

As part of a $675,000 project, the airport's runways, taxiways and general aviation ramp will undergo maintenance work over the three-day period to keep them up to safety standards, according to a news release from the airport. The Federal Aviation Administration is funding 90 percent of the project while the Dickinson Airport Authority is paying for the remaining 10 percent.

"This has been in the works for quite some time, so we've worked with the airlines and with all the airport users to make sure that the patrons of the airport, our customers, are not impacted," Airport Manager Kelly Braun said.

This year's maintenance is more extensive than the last year's, but the airport has had construction projects the last two years as well. On Oct. 8 and 9, the airport also is requiring all departures and arrivals to receive prior approval at least 45 minutes before using the runway.

"It's the busiest weekend of the year for us," Braun said. "It's opening pheasant season, so the (general aviation) traffic in and out of our airport is numerous. What we ask is that anyone that's planning a takeoff or a landing call us on our aviation radio ... and inform us of their intent to depart or arrive so that we can pull equipment and personnel off the active runway, so they can get in and out safely."

Sanford Health uses the Dickinson Airport to transport critically injured or sick patients to and from other hospitals. But Sanford's AirMed Base Operations Manager Adam Parker said he was not concerned about the closure.

"We've been working with the airport manager to just kind of work out the details to ensure that there's not any interruption in our service," Parker said. "So doing so might require us to reposition the aircraft periodically during those three days to other airports in western North Dakota just to ensure that we can still complete patient flights out of the referral hospitals out in that area."

He said the aircraft and crew may stay at the Bismarck, Watford City, Bowman or Hettinger airports, though they have not picked one yet. Ground ambulances or the Valley Med Flight helicopter at CHI St. Alexius Health are two other options for patients needing immediate transportation out of Dickinson.

"There's often times that we have different airports in our area, in our service area, that undergo maintenance and we just have to make accommodations for when that happens," Parker said. "But we just look at them on a case-by-case basis and make a plan, so that we can always provide service to that area as best as we can."

The routine maintenance is also part of a larger plan that is in the works to revamp the main runway, Braun said.

The oil boom brought in more commercial and private traffic through the airport, which wore on the runways. There was also an increase in heavier traffic, which sped up the rate of wear and tear. This goal of this larger plan is to build a runway strong enough to withstand larger planes and more frequent traffic so less work needs to be done in the future.

The plan, which has not yet received approval and is still awaiting an environmental assessment, is to build a parallel taxiway to the main runway which would also be up to standards to use as a temporary runway. Upon completion of that taxiway/temporary runway, the airport would tear out the main runway and build a larger replacement. Once that was finished, the temporary runway would be repainted and used as a taxiway again.

"We're kind of killing three birds with one stone," said Jon Frantsvog, chairman of the Dickinson Airport Authority. "First bird is being able to allow airport operations to continue without any interruptions. ... Secondly, the ideal arrangement for safely moving aircrafts on and off the runway is through what's called a parallel taxiway, so the temporary runway will then be repainted and be used as a parallel taxiway so safer aircraft movement operations on the field. Lastly, because that taxiway is built to runway standards, if we have to do a project like we have coming up we can repaint the taxiway, make it a runway again and then have a runway while we do the work on the main runway."

Braun said he is hoping to start the design part of the plan at the beginning of 2017 with the entire project completed and fully operational by the end of 2021.

Building for bigger planes

The maintenance in October is expected to have a three-year lifespan, but the runway will then need more than just patches, Frantsvog said.

A new runway usually can last 20 to 30 years, depending on how well it is maintained, Braun said. Aircraft landings do the most damage to runways, followed closely by the weather, and then takeoffs, he said. A 70,000 pound plane coming in at about 150 mph has an impact.

Each runway has a maximum weight threshold, the maximum amount of weight that it's designed to support. Dickinson Airport's main runway has a threshold of 30,000 pounds dual-wheel and is 100 feet wide and 6,400 feet long, Braun said.

The master plan would shift the runway about 1,500 feet to the northwest and then extend it to 7,300-feet long, widen it to 150 feet and make it thicker to withstand more weight.

The largest plane the runways can currently withstand at a higher frequency are 50-seat regional jets, he said. These aircrafts are actually heavier than the runways are designed to handle, so the airport issues a waiver basically saying it accepts responsibility for the added damage these planes cause.

"We want commercial service in Dickinson, so without that there would be no United Airlines," Braun said.

Many airlines, including United—the only commercial airline that still flies into Dickinson—want start phasing out those 50-seat regional planes in favor of larger ones because of their better fuel-efficiency, though this will probably be a gradual transition, Frantsvog said. That means the airport may have to host even larger planes down the line.

Though the traffic through the airport is down from last year, it is still higher than in the years preceding the oil boom, he said. Oil will continue to draw people and businesses to Dickinson in the years to come, making these projects necessary.

Braun estimated that in 2016, about 20,000 people will have flown out of Dickinson, a number that is recorded to determine the level of federal funding the airport receives. If less than 10,000 people fly out of an airport in a year, the federal government guarantees only $100,000 a year, about the cost of two loads of asphalt, Braun said. Airports exceeding 10,000 customers are guaranteed to receive $1 million a year.

If approved, the master plan will cost about $60 million to complete. Braun said federal funds should cover about 55 percent of that cost, the state covering about 40 percent and the remaining 5 percent being paid for locally.

First, the airport must pass the environmental assessment, then the master plan and airport layout have to be complete and approved by the FAA. The federal and state government have to justify the expense as well in order to allocate the funds.

Ultimately, the airport and board are trying to cause the least amount of inconvenience to their customers and to plan ahead to meet current traffic demands in addition to planning for the future.

"This is not something unusual," Frantsvog said. "There are airports doing this all over the country every day, and this is not the first time that we've done it at Dickinson. The problem is we can't put cones down the middle of the runway and have you just land on the one side. I'm a pilot. I like to have the whole runway available to me."

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