Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Runway rehabilitation could curtail Norfolk International Airport (KORF) capacity

Norfolk International Airport said it will have to work quickly to overcome obstacles that could close down its avenues of revenue — the runways.

The airport has two — a 9,000-foot-long main runway and a smaller, shorter crosswind runway. Designated 14/32, the shorter runway reopened July 3. It was closed for nearly a year due to not meeting the Federal Aviation Administration’s requirement of having at least 1,000 feet of safety area beyond the runway.

The crosswind runway was previously 4,876 feet. To allow flight operations to resume, it was shortened to 3,900 feet and the lines were repainted to create a larger safety area.

Only the main runway can handle commercial aircraft, and airport officials said the pavement will soon need rehabilitation and reconstruction. Plans to build a new parallel runway are on hold and the timeline to make decisions is shrinking.

Robert Bowen, the executive director of the airport, said the smaller runway can’t be used by commercial aircraft — a restriction it already had with its short length. This means that if any major rehabilitation has to be done on the main runway, the crosswind runway would not be able to support the majority of the airport’s traffic because it’s too small.

And this is exactly the problem that the airport may come across in the years ahead.

The airport is seeking final approval to mill and overlay the main runway in the late spring or early summer of 2018. The project would take around six to nine months to complete, putting the runway entirely out of use during that time.

According to the airport's engineering reports, that project would only buy 10 to 12 years of time before the main runway would have to be completely replaced. And with no existing runway that could support the airport’s larger aircraft traffic, operations at the airport would drastically drop.

“Based on current technology and current reconstruction methods, there would be a time where the runway would have to be closed completely,” Bowen said. “At that point, we would not have a runway that could support commercial air carrier operations.”

This would also cause a drop in passenger traffic and large cargo airlines that fly out over 5 million pounds of cargo every month.

“It would have a major effect at that time because there wouldn’t really be any revenue coming in…” Bowen said of the airport’s usual budget of around $44 million a year. “We haven’t really looked that far ahead yet. But it would have a large effect.”

But they're results of a problem that could be easily solved with the addition of the airport's plans for a new 6,500-foot-long parallel runway. But the FAA has halted the plans. The Navy also has concerns over the runway plans due to its alignment with its Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek.

“The flight path of the proposed runway would be over the base itself,” Bowen said. There’s already a flight path over the base, but the airport would be adding a second. 

“A frustrating portion of this is the FAA canceled the portion of the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) project that would have focused on the concerns that the Navy has in regards to the flight paths and filling in part of the lake if necessary,” he said. “We didn’t have a chance to really study it in the capacity that it needed to be studied.”

An environmental impact study started in 2003 and neared completion before it was withdrawn. Ten years passed before the study could get restarted.

“This is the second environmental study that has been cancelled for this parallel runway. ... For me, it’s personally frustrating and I think it’s frustrating for the airport authority and for the communities here as well,” he said.

The airport authority will soon begin working on an update to its master plan and look at the alternatives which would include a parallel runway.   

But Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne said the FAA is unlikely to approve the additional parallel runway because they believe there is additional commercial aviation capacity in the region, which includes Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.

"When you have unused capacity and a major federal agency, the U.S. Navy saying that they have issues, the federal authorities are not going to move," Layne said.

With another EIS project taking three years to complete, a master plan update taking two years, and a few years of design and engineering needed, the main runway will probably be due for a complete reconstruction at the end of it all, Bowen said.  

And if there is no second runway to support larger aircraft traffic, it could be a long time before the airport could support that traffic again.

Bowen said the airport doesn’t currently have a plan if that happens.

“Our focus right now is to try to get an environmental impact study resumed and completed and then go from there,” he said. “But yeah, that planning horizon is a little far off for that contingency yet.”

As part of the rehabilitation of the main runway in 2018, Bowen said an engineering study would be conducted to confirm the runway's durability.

“I am passionate about this,” he said. “This is the future of this airport and we’re trying our best to work with everybody — the FAA, the Navy — to try to come up with an acceptable solution and get to work on it.”


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