Empire editorial: Juneau International Airport improvements long overdue

Posted: Sunday, October 21, 2001

The tragic events of Sept. 11 focused the nation's attention on air safety and security.

The sudden and total loss of air service for three days affected Juneau and Alaska in a very profound way since Alaska is in essence an island state deeply dependent upon aircraft to move mail, cargo and people.

Prior to Sept. 11, the Juneau International Airport had plenty of pressing needs and concerns to address. An environmental impact statement (EIS) for enhancements to safety, access and development was already under way.

The events of Sept. 11 have led to further unprecedented security measures. Airport management had to react very quickly to mandates issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. The barrage of directives and emergency amendments continues. Allan Heese and his staff have worked miracles small and large to quickly comply. The Juneau Airport was one of the first in the nation to come back on line and is now a safer and more secure place.

However, the safety, security and development questions addressed in the EIS must be carefully weighed. Juneau's airport now handles an extraordinary volume of traffic. Annual enplanements now number approximately 400,000, placing the per capita air use at 10 times the national average or a volume typical of a city of 250,000 people. The demand over the next 20 years is expected to grow significantly.

Juneau's is the largest airport in the state to operate without state funding. Aside from financial support from the city and revenues derived from passenger facility charges, leases, usage fees and concessions, the airport survives on funding from the FAA. In order to preserve this funding the airport must operate in strict compliance with FAA mandates.

The EIS was initiated because of pressing needs. The Airport Master Plan outlines a number of projects dealing with safety, security, growth and development, including expansion of the runway safety area, development of lands for aviation use, installation of an approach lighting system for improved poor weather access, and wildlife management.

Development of unused airport space is critically needed to meet the pent-up demand for leased space and to generate revenues needed to help fund $30 million to $50 million in capital improvements. Again, a number of the capital projects on the list are mandated by the FAA.

It was determined long ago that the airport terminal should be enlarged significantly to handle the heavy passenger and cargo volume it now sees nearly every day. Added space is necessary to operate efficiently, and comfortably, and to accommodate an adequate level of security.

With cramped space, a leaking roof, and a third-world ambiance in the receiving area for international visitors, the state's capital city needs to devote serious attention to upgrade one of its most important assets.

Since Sept. 11, few would argue against the importance of safety and security. Our airport is one of only a few in the country with runways unprotected by fences. Last year two boaters from Canada simply walked from the channel and crossed the runway on their way to purchase beer at Fred Meyer.

The airport's tidal basin location exposes it to extraordinary risks from bird strikes. It is a simple fact that wetlands and airports make poor companions. In 1995, 24 people died at Anchorage's Elmendorf Air Force Base when a military plane crashed on takeoff after hitting a flock of geese.

For many years airport management has supported the use of its security road as a walking trail for local residents. The trail is without question one of the most heavily used in the area. The airport board and management are extremely sensitive to the importance of the dike trail and the wetlands in question. There is hope that a compromise can be achieved, but to do so will require open minds and creative solutions.

The conflict between safety and development versus public use and wetlands preservation presents the most challenging problem to solve. Determining the future of our airport is up to all of us. Get involved by learning all you can about the issues related to the airport. Participate in the public meetings and respond with your thoughts and comments. One thing is certain, change must come.

For now, additional safety and security work is on hold and millions of dollars in federal and local funds are tied up until the EIS is completed.

Address constructive written comments to Allan Heese, Airport Manager's Office, 1873 Shell Simmons Drive, Suite 200, Juneau, 99801. Be a part of Juneau airport's neighborhood watch system. Report anything suspicious to airport employees or by calling 789-9593.

Don Smith



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