Empire editorial: Juneau airport needs runway safety zones

Posted: Thursday, April 21, 2005

Juneau's airport is its portal to the world, an economic hub and its enabler for state government. Assembly members would be wise not to experiment with its safety.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires the Juneau International Airport to have runway safety areas 1,000 feet in length and 500 feet in width, in case an aircraft overruns the target. Yet the FAA suggests that the city might use a passive system instead, whereby cement blocks paving the ends of a runway would crush under a plane's weight, slowing its progress.

The FAA says it's a proven technology that has worked elsewhere, such as at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. The system reportedly has prevented three crashes there, most recently in January.

Still, the city's airport manager notes that it is untested in Alaska, where only Cordova has decided to give it a shot. City officials also fear snow removal could be tricky and expensive on a safety pad that is designed to give way.

The engineered solution is just one under study by the FAA, along with building the safety zones to full length or a combination of the longer zones and the plane-arresting technology.

The tradeoff for Juneau is land within the Mendenhall Wetlands State Game Refuge, a community asset in its own right. Loss of recreational land and associated habitat is unfortunate, but appears to be a necessary evil in this case. The airport is where it is, and no viable alternative site exists.

As it seeks to develop its economy - and indeed to retain its economic core, state government - the city must not take chances with its airport. With Alaska's vast distances, the airport is and will be the key to physical access to the capital. Those who would relocate the capital will seize on any advantage, including a perception that Juneau's airport is not up to standards, or that the city won't sacrifice to make it so.

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