Empire editorial: Short airport runway puts the future of Juneau at risk

Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2002

Mother Nature has taught us a hard lesson about the rippling effect of reduced air access to Juneau during the course of our fog-bound fall. The experience has heightened the general awareness of how much Juneau citizens and visitors depend upon air service. When flights are canceled, the economic ramifications are compounded and frustration levels rise.

Juneau's limited access was one of the key reasons the sponsors of the legislative move initiative used in the fall election to support their contention that Juneau is a poor location for the center of government.

With all the election rhetoric about improved access to Juneau, the community is now grappling with the absurd possibility that it might end up with reduced rather than increased options for air access, Juneau's most vitally important transportation connection to the rest of the world.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has mandated that Juneau International Airport must comply with certain runway safety standards. One such standard would require that a safety zone measuring 1,000 feet by 500 feet be added to each end of the existing runway to provide added security in the rare event that an airliner might overshoot or undershoot the target landing zone.

One way to meet the FAA requirement would be to add the 2,000-foot safety area to the existing 8,400-foot runway at great expense and sacrifice of wetlands. Another option would be to reduce the operational portion of the existing runway to 6,400 feet, effectively converting the equivalent of 2,000 feet of useable runway into restricted safety zones. The FAA also has the authority to waive the safety zone requirement or modify it, but this will only happen if the community speaks out in a strong voice against the shortening option.

Proponents of the shorter runway option claim that it will have only a minor impact on Alaska Airlines' current operations. There is nothing "minor" about lopping off 2,000 feet of runway. Alaska Airlines pilots have been very vocal about the need to maintain the existing runway length for safety reasons. Consideration also should be given the impact a shortened runway will have on the future capacity of the airport. The future may bring changes in equipment or the addition of service provided by another jet carrier.

Airport officials are totally committed to safety. Reducing the length of the runway, however, seems counterintuitive to promoting safety, especially given Juneau's unique topography and propensity for wildly unpredictable wind and weather. Even with Alaska Airlines' cutting edge navigation capabilities, most of us can appreciate the peace of mind that comes with landing on a long runway rather than a short one under conditions of marginal visibility.

Adding the safety zone to the existing runway would cost millions of dollars while providing absolutely no improvement in capacity or service. The effort would result in an unfortunate waste of money at a time when our airport has a long list of pressing and costly capital needs.

The most compelling argument against shortening the runway is that Juneau can ill afford to send a message to the rest of the state that the community is comfortable with reduced access, perceived or otherwise.

It is inevitable that another capital move effort will raise its ugly head again and Juneau's posture on access will be a strong determinant in how soon such an effort gets underway and the degree to which the next pro-move force succeeds or fails.

Another critically important factor to consider is the direct link between air transportation and the economy of Juneau and the rest of Southeast Alaska. The level of air service throughout the region is directly linked to the level of service here in Juneau.

Moving the airport is not a realistic option, so all parties concerned must consider the future and make the most of the facility in which we have invested so deeply.

Voice your support for Juneau's future by writing to the FAA and members of our congressional delegation and make an appeal for preservation.

Address your letter to:

Woodie Woodward, Associate Administrator, FAA Airports - ARP-1, 800 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, D.C. 20591

Col. Steven T. Perrenot, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, P.O. Box 6898, Eielson AFB, AK 99506-5610

Don Smith



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