A Runway Success

The project involved removing the existing runway surface and laying approximately 16,500 tonnes of new asphalt in 410ft-long (125m) sections each night.

Newcastle International’s Head of Operations Chris Davis believes that good communication and planning were the principal reasons for the success of the airport’s recent resurfacing project.  Richard Maslen spoke to the experienced airport executive.

The project involved removing the existing runway surface and laying approximately 16,500 tonnes of new asphalt in 410ft-long (125m) sections each night.

A£6 million (US$8.7m) scheme to resurface the runway at Newcastle International Airport in the UK’s North East was completed on February 28, 2009, five weeks ahead of schedule.  The work by contractors Tarmac involved replacing the top layer of asphalt on the 7,641ft (2,329m) by 161ft (49m) airstrip, and re-grooving the freshly laid surface to increase its friction and to manage surface water.
The project was the first major work on the runway since 1995 when a major reconstruction down to the sub-base level took place, closing the facility overnight for more than six months.  “This previous work was guaranteed for a 15 year period so we had been working towards this recent time window for the resurfacing work,” Chris Davis, Newcastle International’s Head of Operations told Airports International.  However, it had become apparent during 2008 that the work would be required sooner rather than later as, according to Chris, “the top surface was becoming smooth and shiny as a result of the build up of rubber”, which was initially being combated by a twice-a-year decontamination process.
As part of the airport’s Technical Services Agreement with Copenhagen Airports (a 49% shareholder) it has use of a pavement monitoring tool called Airpave Management System, and it was this state-of-the-art, windows-based software that highlighted the need for the work.  The system can determine required works across the airport and develop rehabilitation methods, minimising operational down time.  “This software told us when the work would be required, and as a result we had our plans already in place,” explained Chris.
After releasing a tender for the contract in July 2008, UK engineering firm Tarmac was selected to complete the works in October 2008.  The company had worked at the airport before on a number of projects, including extensions to the apron and strengthening work ahead of the launch of Emirates Airline’s Dubai link in September 2007.
“We knew that we needed to get everybody at Newcastle International aware of our plans,” said Chris.  “We opened talks with representatives of our airlines, ground handling agents etc so they were involved in the project from an early stage.  Another benefit was engaging with the contractor as soon as possible and involving Tarmac in meetings to explain how the works would be carried out.
“We had seen the problems that Bristol Airport encountered by operating with a temporary surface during periods of poor weather and have shared the lessons learnt from their experiences.  As a result we set clear guidelines that we would never have more than 820ft (250m) of ungrooved surface at any one time and that this area would be clearly defined to operational crew on a daily basis via a group email communication.”
Chris acknowledged that this “proved very effective” as it gave airlines a daily update on the progress.  Regular NOTAM action was also taken on a daily basis to inform crews of the progress and was managed by the airport project team and representatives from consultants Hall and Partners.  The main airport project engineer was Stephen Barnard who supervised the work nightly for the duration of the contract, while Neil McIntyre supported the project from Hall and Partners.
The discussions with the airport’s partners also meant some changes to the original schedules for the works.  The initial plan, announced in August 2008, was to complete the work between November 3, 2008 and March 31, 2009 and the hours of 23:00 and 06:00.  However, following talks with Jet2, which operates a nightly Royal Mail freight service from the airport, the project was deferred to early 2009.  “They wanted us to slip the schedule so as not to disrupt the Christmas post, also requesting that we delay the start of works to enable their aircraft to depart a little later,” said Chris.
As a result work commenced on January 3, 2009, with the contractors taking possession of the runway shortly after 23:30.  “Once the cargo flight had departed we gave a five-minute window for the jet to climb away from the airport.  Once it had reached 10,000ft it would have travelled to one of its diversionary airports – either Durham Tees Valley or Manchester – if it had suffered a technical problem, so we were safe to close the runway for the works.  This was a process that was followed each night,” explained Chris.
Under the revised timetable, Tarmac had a window of six and a quarter hours every night between 23:30 and 05:45 to complete the work, with April 28 set as the deadline.  However, the new runway surface had to be laid by 04:00 in order to give it time to harden.  “Some nights it looked like Cat III conditions there was so much steam,” joked Chris.  At 05:00 a full walking inspection of the entire runway would then be completed, before Airside Operations and the Fire Service checked the key areas and simulated braking action before the airport could be re-opened.
Nearly 1,000 runway lights were also removed and replaced. (all Newcastle International Airport)

Projects like these are notoriously difficult to plan because of the restricted operational window the contractor has available.  After the last departure, a convoy of construction vehicles would enter the runway each night and complete a small section of resurfacing as well as installing new airfield lighting before handing the runway back to the airfield operations team the following morning.  Such works are generally completed overnight to minimise the impact on services, and normally in the winter months when demand is much lower.
However, the prevalent weather conditions in the UK at that time of the year can be best described as unsettled, especially in the North East of the country, which can suffer quickly changing conditions.  The airport spent around £10,000 (US$14,500) on accurate weather statistics from the Met Office, money Chris described as being “very well spent.”  This provided historical data and trends on temperature changes, snowfall, ice, rain and strong winds and suggested that over the project period 23 days could potentially have been lost due to poor weather conditions.
There were actually only two days that no work was completed due to snow, but Chris acknowledged that the data enabled the airport to prepare contingencies for any weather-related eventuality.  “In periods of high winds we sometimes have to move the Jet2 cargo aircraft from the southern freight apron to the main northern apron to protect it from the elements during loading, which would affect the parking positions of the vehicles required for the runway works.”
Every day the operations team held a ‘toolbox’ meeting with representatives of the Airport Fire Service, Airfield Operations, Air Traffic Engineers, Air Traffic Control, consultants Ramboll and contractor Tarmac.  This took place at 18:00 every evening and outlined what work would be completed in the night ahead.  At a later 22:00 meeting the final ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ decision was made on the proposed night’s work.  The following morning a full review of the work that had been completed the night before was sent to technical representatives of the airlines and handling agents.  “We even checked the email addresses six weeks before the work began when we sent a test message to ensure that the system worked, such was the level of planning,” said Chris.
To begin with the plan was to remove and replace around 328ft (100m) of asphalt a night, but it quickly became clear that this could be increased to 410ft (125m).  The asphalt was actually prepared off-site and transported onto the airport to maintain better quality control.  “It was like a military exercise as we would not make any preparatory work until we knew the vehicle was on its way,” quipped Chris.  “As soon as we got the call that it was moving, then we were ready to go.”
The airport had to up its security presence during the work because of the increase in movements into, around and out of the site.  It also adopted a system similar to that used by emergency services at the scene of an accident, logging all movements in and out of sterile areas to minimise any Foreign Object Damage.
“We had one or two challenges during the project but with detailed planning and daily communication it was a success,” concluded Chris.  “It is all about getting the details right and involving partners from the earliest possible stage.”  The fact that the work was completed around five weeks earlier than planned can only support Chris’ wise words, built from a 40-year career in the airport business.
SUMMARY OF WORK – January 12/13
An example of one of the emails sent out by the airport to its key partners:

Formal handover to Tarmac at 23:30hrs.  Marshall surface course from Ch 0 to Ch 100.  Temporary markings applied and surface ungrooved.  Removal of AGL Fittings on Alpha taxiway up to and including Alpha 2 Hold.  This hold is now operating on wig-wags alone.  AGL also removed from Golf taxiway lead on/off.  AGL out on the runway up to chainage 300m as previously advised.  Temporary elevated runway end lighting remaining in position.  Delethalisation completed seeded and tack coated on southside from Ch 250 to Ch 310 and northside from Ch 225 to Ch 310.  Secondary cables installed and sealed on Bravo taxiway.  Preparatory saw cutting completed between Ch 450 and Ch 700.
Runway handed back to AOP’s for operation at 05:50hrs.  All contractors works vehicles involved in the final sweep had vacated the runway at 05:38hrs.  AOP’s undertook two further full-length sweeps of the runway.