Carroll McCormick finds out how a runway extension will make Erie International competitive with peer airports.
On November 8, 2012, two years ahead of schedule and under budget, a 1,920ft (585m) runway extension was opened at Erie International Airport/Tom Ridge Field in Pennsylvania, USA.
The extension, added to the east end of the airport’s main runway 06/24, has allowed aircraft take-off weight restrictions to be lowered, enabling the airport’s scheduled carriers and charter flights to depart with more passengers and fuel.
Non-stop flights to destinations, such as Orlando, Florida, and Cancun, Mexico, are now possible. Airport Director Chris Rodgers told Airports International: “With a longer runway we are levelling the playing field with our peer airports. We are competing for longer stage-length air service.”
Mr Rodgers added: “Allegiant Airlines wrote us a letter of support saying they had an interest in serving the Erie-Orlando route, but that they could not with the current runway length. It went on to say they would consider doing so when the extension is completed.”
At the time of writing (December 2012), the airport’s 2012 passenger figures were not yet complete, but in 2011 the airport boarded 112,486 passengers and disembarked 109,762. It handled 25,990 flight movements in all aircraft classes. Visiting aircraft loaded 5,564 tons (5,048 tonnes) of cargo and off-loaded 478,698 tons (434,268 tonnes).
The runway extension is the centrepiece of a suite of airside projects that are reinvigorating the whole airfield. “Everything that needed to be fixed, we fixed. The programme leaves this facility in good shape for the next 20 years,” Mr Rodgers said.
Runway 06/24 and taxiway Alpha now have a completely new lighting system, including two new Instrument Landing Systems (ILS), approach lighting and other navigation aids. A new storm water management system handles any run-off, while a road just beyond the runway end was built and a wetland relocated.
Severe operational constraints have hamstrung Erie airport for years. An extension of Runway 06/24 in 1978 still gave aircraft only 6,500ft (1,981m). As well, non-standard Runway Safety Areas (RSA) required a waiver that will expire at the end of 2014. The RSA on the 06 end was a mere 80ft (24m) long while the RSA on the 24 end was 1,000ft (305m), of which 490ft (149m) was paved and 510ft (155m) grass. Runway 24 offered a landing distance of 6,010ft (1,832m) and Runway 06 a landing distance of 6,500ft (1,981m) with minimums of 3/4 of a mile (1.2km) horizontal and 300ft (91m) vertical.
Weight restrictions were pretty much the order of the day for commercial aircraft, including the CRJ 50, Dash 8 Q200 and Q300. Mr Rodgers explained: “We had significant weight penalties. We sometimes had to reduce passenger loads by half in order to take off from here to fly to Detroit. Without the extension we couldn’t have competed in the world of less-than-weekly scheduled vacation travel.
“Around the country, I could see many viable destinations that we could not reach non-stop. There has been a niche market – leisure travel – that Erie has previously been unable to tap.”
Snowy, foggy winters cause further operational headaches, thanks to the meteorological effects of Lake Erie, less than a mile away. An average of about 12 flights per month were diverting during the winter because of low visibility, but now the extended runway is fully operational, there should be fewer diversions, thanks to the new 1/2-mile (0.8km) horizontal and 200ft (61m) vertical minimums that come with the extra runway length and longer RSAs.
The bill for the entire suite of projects was US$83.1 million. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) contributed $48.6 million, the State of Pennsylvania $7 million, the city of Erie $21.5 million and the airport $6 million. Marlton, New Jersey-based Hill International has the construction management contract for the work, which is being carried out in three phases over four years.
Phase 1 took place on 100 acres (40.5 hectares) of land acquired by the airport. A relocation effort (residents and businesses) and the demolition of 17 residential properties, 102 mobile units in two mobile home parks, five operating businesses and one non-operating business helped cleared the way. A local golf course gave up four holes and an eight-acre (3.2-ha) wetland had to go. Under a mitigation plan a 17-a (67-ha) wetland was built 15 miles (24km) away.
The existing Powell Avenue that bent around the end of the runway also made way. Norwalk, Ohio-based Mark Schaffer Excavating and Trucking, Inc had the task of stretching the bend in the road out beyond the end of the runway extension. “We severed 1,900ft [579m] and added one mile [1.6km],” said Ken Olup, Construction Project Manager, Hill International.
The realignment work began on July 19, 2010, and Powell Avenue reopened on May 3, 2012.
The relocated Powell Avenue bisected an existing flood detention basin, decreasing its original capacity by one-third. To compensate, the contractor developed a 25-acre (10 ha) storm water management area.
Phase 2 consisted of the runway extension, the runway and approach lighting systems and navaids. The high level of state, community and airport funding enabled Erie to do design and acquisition work despite FAA re-authorisation problems delaying the payment of federal funds. This partially accounted for finishing the extension so far ahead of schedule. Additionally, Mr Rodgers added: “It was also an unbelievably good year of construction weather, including a full 2011/2012 winter of construction. This is nearly unheard of this far north.”
The RSA on the 06 end grew by 920ft (280m) by moving the threshold back. All of the new runway footage was added on the 24 end. Kirila Contractors Inc of Brookfield, Ohio won the contract for the extension and broke ground on June 1, 2011.
Syracuse, New York-based C & S Companies designed the new lighting and navigation aid system, which includes two MALSR approach lighting systems, two Instrument Landing Systems, runway and taxiway lighting, electrical vault building and an airfield lighting control and monitoring system.
Aurora, New York-based Astronics/DME Corporation manufactured the MALSR. Thales produced the ILS. The previous airfield lighting was old, so Erie replaced all of the runway lighting circuits and the taxiway Alpha circuit. The new lighting circuits included the installation of 78,000ft (23,774m) of electrical cabling.
By switching over to LED lighting wherever it could on Runway 06/24 and the taxiway, Erie has capitalised on the far less-frequent bulb replacements and lower energy consumption. The LED lighting, supplied by Columbus Ohio-based ADB Airfield Solutions, includes 49 medium intensity taxiway edge lights and 16 LED threshold lights. Erie ordered Arctic kits for the fixtures, which have heating elements to melt accumulations of snow and ice. The only exception to the LED-only policy was the installation of 96 high-intensity incandescent base-mounted runway edge lights and seven high-intensity incandescent semi-flush mounted runway edge lights.
“As of today there is no company that produces high-intensity LED runway edge lighting, but ADB expects to have them by next summer. Our hope is to install high-intensity LED runway edge lighting by the time the programme is completed,” Mr Rodgers explained. As future funding permits, the airport will replace the existing lights on Runway 02/20 with LED fixtures in a phased approach.
The electrical upgrade also included the airport’s first-ever electrical vault building, constructed by Erie-based Perry Construction. ADB supplied the regulators and an airfield lighting control and monitoring system for the air traffic controllers, giving them better control over the lighting on Runway 02/20 for the first time.
“Our electrician is very pleased with the improvements to the airfield electrical system. The electrical vault building is in the middle of the airfield. It is in a proper environment for access and expansion. For the first time all the conduit is at the proper depth, making it much more reliable and efficient,” Mr Rodgers explained.
Phase 3 will be carried out in 2013. It includes an $8 million maintenance overlay of Runway 06/24, the rehabilitation of exit taxiways and Runway 02/20 within the RSA, grading and drainage improvements within the RSA, installation of runway surface sensors and elevation modifications to the MALSR and lights.
When the FAA completed its acceptance work in the autumn, Erie jetted into a new era of air travel. The airport is now poised to become more prosperous, carriers can increase their profitability and local citizens will have more reliable local flight options.
“This extension eliminates the last remaining handicap to airport usage. We want our citizens to be able to capitalise on the convenience of flying out of a small-town airport,” Mr Rodgers enthused. “In addition to competing with other airports for air service, we are able to compete more strongly to maintain the services we already have. Our carriers, Delta, US Airways and United, couldn’t wait to use the longer runway.
“[With Phase 2 complete] we now have safer and more reliable flight operations. We have the opportunity to develop new markets to serve the snowbird population and our casino charter customers. We finished ahead of schedule and under budget thanks to a positive, can-do attitude by everyone involved. The benefit will be felt by the entire Erie community for decades to come.”