City asks for 'better approach' to runway safety zones

Posted: Tuesday, January 14, 2003

The Juneau Assembly, worried that some large planes might not land here if runway space is cut, wants the Federal Aviation Administration to be flexible as it considers new safety zones at Juneau Airport.

The Assembly unanimously approved a resolution Monday that asks the FAA "to consider a better approach" to runway safety areas in Juneau. A safety area, essentially the surface surrounding the runway, lessens the chance of passenger injuries if a plane undershoots or overshoots the runway.

Juneau's airport doesn't comply with federal standards for such safety zones. The FAA requires a safety area to extend 1,000 feet beyond the end of the runway and cover a 500-foot-wide rectangular area. In Juneau, the safety zones extend about 250 feet beyond the end of the runway and are less than 500 feet wide, according to the FAA.

The agency is studying safety zones along with other airport expansion plans in Juneau. A draft environmental impact statement should be released to the public for comment in April, said FAA project manager Patti Sullivan.

Under one FAA option, the airport could lose 870 feet of the existing landing and takeoff zones to accommodate runway safety areas, the Assembly's resolution said.

Juneau Airport Manager Allan Heese and Juneau Airport Board members have objected to a FAA decision to change wording in the draft study that had directed the FAA to bring the airport into safety-area compliance "without adversely affecting the airport operational capabilities."

A new statement removes the wording dealing with operational capabilities, allowing the FAA to consider a broader range of alternatives, Sullivan said. Nevertheless, the FAA will consider the impact to air carriers and the environment as it conducts its review, she said.

"The change of the purpose and need (statement) will not change the analysis that's being done," she said. "We've been doing very extensive coordination with the operators to understand the operational impacts that might be associated with the alternatives and that, as I understand it, is the primary concern with some members of the community."

The Assembly's resolution asks the FAA to reconsider its determination on runway safety areas. It also pledges support in finding other ways to enhance safety without decreasing access.

Part of the trouble is that Juneau's airport is surrounded by the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, the Mendenhall River and other obstacles. The airport is concerned the FAA might require the airport to adjust the runway markings to meet the requirement, Airport Board Chairman Mike Barton told the Juneau Chamber of Commerce last month.

An effort to "shorten" the runway, or reduce the usable space, could limit the number of large jets flying into Juneau and be bad for the city's efforts to retain the capital, Barton said.

"It's counterintuitive to say that you're making the airport safer by shortening the runway," he said.

A shorter runway also could reduce the maximum takeoff and landing weight for planes, in turn increasing carrier costs and decreasing access, the resolution said.

Reducing the existing runway is just one option under review, Sullivan said. So far, research has shown that airplanes landing in Juneau contend with a complicated approach and weather, she said.

"From all we've learned about the complex operating environment, residents of Juneau and members of the community are as deserving of standard safety areas as anyone in the country," she said.

Heese said city officials will meet with the FAA about the issue this week.

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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