The Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport (ITH) runway closes today for repaving, which means there will be no commercial flights coming in or out for two weeks. The $4.3 million project will involve shaving between two and three inches of the existing surface, then repaving the 6,977 by 150 foot wide runway. But the airport is far from closed. Airport Manager Mike Hall says that while fixed wing operations will be halted, the airport staff will remain busy overseeing the project, accommodating helicopter flights, and catching up on airport maintenance.
"The airport will remain open, but obviously airplanes that need runways won't be able to operate," Hall says. "Our helicopters will. That's important because we do a fair amount of Medivac flights. Our airport staff will be busy supervising the construction activity and making sure the airfield remains safe for rotary operations. The aircraft control tower is going to continue to operate because of rotary operations and the possibility that there might be an emergency that would pop up where we might need to clear the taxiway and let them land on a taxiway -- it would have to be a very serious emergency. But those happen from time to time when people fly overhead."
Hall attributes the runway's longevity to good, continuous maintenance. He says it is the equivalent of keeping any road or driveway in good shape, and notes that 22 years is reasonable. He decided to bite the bullet and simply close the airport when he learned that closing for a few hours a day would not only add $1 million to the project cost, but would pose all kinds of safety issues.
"Any time you close the runway you're going to inconvenience our many loyal travelers, and you feel sorry about that. But we also expect that they understand. They want a good, safe runway to operate off of. Anybody that's got a paved driveway knows that to get 22 years out of it is quite an accomplishment."
The construction of a runway requires a different bearing strength than a highway, but Hall says the differences in construction don't make it last longer. He says they are design-specific to handle the unique kind of wear that takeoffs and landings cause. Ithaca's runway is long enough to accommodate all of the 737s, and even the larger 757s.
"We have more runway here than Midway Airport in Chicago, or John Wayne Airport in southern California, bot of which have extensive long haul service with 757-like airplanes," Hall says. "Where we're a little short is when you get into the big four engine transports, the 747s and what have you, but we can accomodate and have accommodate all of the medium sized transports available in the world. 7,000 feet is a pretty good length."
ITH's paved runway runs northwest (Runway 32) or southeast (Runway 14), depending on the wind. Runways are numbered for the degrees on the compass point to. While runways are obviously one-way streets, the way is chosen depending, literally, on which way the wind is blowing. Landing against the wind is easier and safer, because the aircraft's ground speed is at its lowest during landing and it means the plane can land using less runway than it would if it landed with the wind.
Most people don't realize that the airport actually has two runways. A 2018’ x 50’ turf runway runs parallel to the paved one on it's far side from the terminal. But Hall says it is too close to the planned construction to allow it to operate while the main runway is being paved.
Meanwhile, being largely relieved of firefighting duties, the airport fire department will have some time to catch up on maintenance to taxiways, mowing the grass and other tasks.
"They are firefighters first and foremost, and that's a federal requirement to have commercial air service," Hall explains. "They also maintain the airfield. This gives them a little bit of a break from firefighting responsibilities to train and also accomplish some of the projects on the airfield that we like to do in summer -- pavement maintenance -- there's a lot more pavement than what's being redone on the runway. They maintain all the systems on the airport. They maintain all the vehicles that plow snow and do various other things. It's a very multi-faceted job. They'll be plenty busy."
Hall has also worked to expand his fire department's mutual aid scope. The FAA requires airport fire departments to get their first vehicles on an accident scene at the airport within three minutes, and the rest within four. That means they have a tight radius for helping Lansing and other departments outside the airport. The airport is in the Village of Lansing, which accounts for nearly half the emergency calls in the Lansing fire district. That proximity means their firefighters, who are all trained as EMTs, can get to an emergency scene faster than trucks dispatched from Lansing's Central Station.
"We've been responding to automobile accidents or other problems where it might take Lansing a while to get there because of where Lansing station is," Hall says. "So we work mutual aid with Lansing and help out in our neck of the woods. The same thing for EMT calls. If somebody's having a heart attack in the terminal it will be a while before you can get an ambulance here, but our people respond very quickly to try to stabilize the situation. And also in the business park across the street."
Although the project has been on the books for a long time, there has already been a glitch. Despite multiple notifications starting a year ago that the runway would be closed, two of the three commercial air carriers couldn't seem to understand that they wouldn't be able to fly here for the next two weeks. American and United Airlines did book flights, and while they eventually made good on re-booking without leveling a fee for changing flights, some customers reported that they had to call several times before they were satisfactorily taken care of.
"I wound up talking with senior people at both airlines who felt the same way I did about it -- how could this be happening?!," Hall says. "But they have a big reservation system, and some of that is contracted out, and they just couldn't get it right."
While there is no accommodation by the airlines for ground transportation, the Ithaca Airline Limousine is offering $30 off the regular round trip price, and $10 off a one-way trip to the Syracuse airport. To make up for the inconvenience the airport plans a week of free food and a chance to win prizes and gifts from local businesses. A few examples are a one night stay at La Tourelle with breakfast for two and a $100 gift card to August Moon Spa, State Theater tickets, dinner at Coltivare, and wine from local wineries. A few airline vouchers will be given away, as well as celebratory flights sponsored by East Hill Flying Club. This 'client appreciation week' is set for July 25th-July 31st with a ribbon cutting at the terminal at 9am on the 25th.
Hall says after all the planning the airport staff is excited to start the project today.
"The paving company Suit-Kote, has been terrific," Hall says. "They're really geared up to jump in and get this thing done. All we need is a little bit of good weather and it will be 22 years before we have to do it again. The week that we reopen we're having a ribbon cutting that kicks off a week of prizes and good deals at the airport, not just for travelers, but anyone who wants to stop out. We just want to thank our traveling public for the unfortunate inconvenience. But there was no choice. The runway was in pretty bad shape."
Original article can be found here: http://www.lansingstar.com