Airport renovations to boost safety

Improvements also stand to eliminate congestion, save energy

Posted: Wednesday, October 14, 2009

For a facility with an annual operating budget of $5 million, there's a lot going on Juneau International Airport.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Of $50 million in suggested terminal improvements, airport officials could afford $20 million, so they set two priorities for the money: energy conservation and dealing with congestion. Now, the improvements are under way and could eliminate congestion and lead to $80,000 a year in energy savings.

About 400,000 passengers go through the airport each year, about twice as many as in 1984, when the airport had its last major renovation. Some parts of the terminal date back to 1948.

In a separate project, more than $100 million of federally mandated airfield improvements are also planned or under way.

Airfield renovations

After 10 years working through federal regulatory requirements, construction on federally mandated improvements to runway safety began Monday.

The Federal Aviation Administration requires "safety areas" around the runway, intended to reduce damage and risk should a plane overshoot, undershoot or drive off the runway.

Paradoxically, wetlands around the 8,456-foot runway initially required the airport to shorten the runway to make the runway safety areas, said Airport Manager Jeannie Johnson.

Johnson and airport and city officials went to Washington, D.C., to ensure the airport wouldn't have to take that step. Juneau's runway will keep its length and there's now a law saying runways in Alaska cannot be shortened for runway safety areas, Johnson said.

Lynae Craig, the manager of air traffic and airfield operations for Alaska Airlines, said the safety areas don't change any kind of operations for the company.

"It's nice to have there and you hope you never really notice that it's there," she said.

At a little more than 8,400 feet, Juneau's runway is long, she said. Alaska Airlines typically recommends not landing on runways shorter than 6,500 feet, with 7,000 being better, she said.

"If you have snow, which happens in Juneau, or rain or ice - any kind of contamination can affect an airplane's performance. The greater the length, the better," Craig said, adding "maintaining that runway length was very important for us in Juneau."

Deputy Airport Manager Patty deLaBruere said the airport will add 900 feet on the east end of the runway and 250 feet on the west end. The Airport Dike Trail will be relocated a little to the west; airport officials emphasized they plan on minimizing closure times for the trail.

A 75-foot safety area will be added to each side of the runway; dirt dredged from the float pond will be used for fill, which has the three-fold benefit of getting rid of weeds in the pond and getting rid of hazardous bird habitat around the runway in addition to creating the safety area, deLaBruere said.

It's a costly effort. Before moving any dirt, an environmental assessment that cost $4 million was followed by a $5 million environmental impact study. Phase 1 of the project is expected to cost $42 million. Phase 2, which includes runway pavement and lighting systems, is $24 million.

Separately, new airport maintenance buildings will cost $30 million.

Ninety-five percent of the money, however, is supplied by the FAA. The state provides 2.5 percent, leaving a 2.5 percent local match.

Johnson also pointed out that the projects create dozens of local jobs; contractor Alaska Interstate Construction said it will employ 30 people at the project's peak.

The safety areas should be complete by late 2010 or early 2011. Phase 2 will be complete about two years after that.

Terminal, baggage area, TSA

Long, crowded waits for luggage should be shorter and less crowded once terminal improvements are done, scheduled for Oct. 1, 2010.

Passengers currently have to try to get their bags and exit out of a single doorway, which can get "unsafe and bad feeling," especially during the height of the tourist season, Airport Architect Catherine Fritz said.

The renovations will add two more exits.

The luggage belt also has been lengthened and "kicked out" at an angle.

Though the renovation only puts a total of 10,000 more square feet in the terminal, Fritz said that space resolves several critical problems.

"We didn't want to just make more square footage, because then we would be defeating that first goal of trying to reduce the operating costs," she said. "We wanted it to be high-quality square footage that meets the needs and didn't cost a fortune."

Part of the need came after Sept. 11, 2001, when the airport lost more than 8,000 square feet to safety screening. Some tenants' offices were taken to make room, cutting into revenue. A community meeting room lost to post-Sept. 11 cuts also will be restored, Fritz said.

"No airport terminals were ever designed for what happened on 9/11, and then everyone just had to kind of scramble to make do," said Johnson.


The second priority set by the airport involves a cutting-edge step - building two of a handful of geothermal fields in Alaska. Heat stored in the earth is extracted to above-ground facilities.

"It is proven technology," Fritz said. "It's just technology that hasn't been used in Juneau, mainly because of construction costs."

The geothermal field that will heat the terminal cost $1 million to build.

It also will allow officials to customize heating and power needs to different areas of the airport.

"It lets us control areas more responsibly," Fritz said.

In addition to the geothermal field, the renovated portions of the terminal will be covered with a "high performance envelope" of insulation.

"Our whole envelope will be treated more for a northern climate," said Fritz.

One of several other smaller improvements is a geothermally heated ice-melt system on the sidewalks in front of the terminal.

Money for those improvements is coming from a variety of sources - legislative appropriations, grants, the passenger facility fee included in every ticket to Juneau, the state and $10 million from a voter-approved sales tax.

Fritz, Johnson and deLaBruere said they expect the changes will lead to as much as $80,000 a year in energy savings. Project engineers have told officials they will have the capability to save even more.

"We're cautious to say 'We know it's going to save this much money,'" Fritz said. "We don't know. This is brand new. We've done a lot of calculations and the paybacks look really good to us."

The paybacks look especially good because of a $513,000 grant from the Alaska Energy Authority to help with up-front costs, she said.

Savings from chemicals to melt ice, labor and equipment maintenance also will lead to "pockets of savings" throughout the project, deLaBruere said.

"I think we're all going to be watching it (savings) very closely," Johnson said.

The geothermal field will be in operation, heating the ice-melt system in the sidewalks, by late December, they said.

The search for $30 million to renovate the remainder of the terminal continues.

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