Longer runway aims for longer reach

1/4/2017

Knoxville fliers may be able to get further afield in one hop when runway work is done at the Knoxville McGhee Tyson Airport.

The overall project, expected to cost $108 million, is a total rebuilding of the runways including added irrigation, wiring, lights and markings, according to Becky Huckaby, vice president of public relations for the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority.

The existing runway is long enough to handle any commercial jet, but extra room does make it more attractive to airlines, she said.

Some international flights already leave McGhee Tyson as travel charters, said Bryan White, vice president of engineering and planning for the airport authority. That may become more frequent, but domestic service likely is to benefit the most.

“The big key is that deeper U.S. routes will open up,” White said. A longer runway will let airliners carry fuel for longer flights, per- haps to the West Coast.

“It may open up yet unknown routes to us, different cities,” he said.

Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines and United Airlines now fly from Knoxville. McGhee Tyson offers flights to 15 American cities in 11 states and Washington, D.C.; the longest is a recently-added nonstop to Las Vegas.

Opened in 1930, McGhee Tyson Airport is 12 miles south of Knoxville in northern Blount County, on 2,000 acres off Alcoa Highway, between Louisville to the north and Alcoa to the south.

It is home base for the Tennessee Air National Guard 134th Air Refueling Wing, which operates Boeing KC-135 tankers from the field.

The airport has two runways, lying parallel. Both officially were 9,000 feet long when work began: Runway 5L/23R, and Runway 5R/23L. According to the airport’s 2006 master plan, Runway 5L/23R carries the bulk of military traffic, while 5R/23L handles most commercial and general aviation. That divide is expected to remain about the same in the future, according to project manager CHA Consulting of Nashville.

The north runway, 5L/23R, is being lengthened to 10,000 feet. During the work, 3,000 feet of that runway were demolished while 6,000 feet remained open for small general-aviation planes. Large commercial flights still can land on Runway 5R/23L, which will remain 9,000 feet long when work is done.

Work is split into at least three phases, or projects. Two contract projects officially are underway, White said. Mississippi- based Eutaw Construction, which has a Franklin office, is contractor on both.

Project 1 will finish around the start of March, after 18 months of work. The $25 million project will end with construction of a connector taxiway, White said. Project 2, expected to cost $28 million for design, construction and relocation of a gas pipeline, has been going on for about three months, he said.

Project 2 includes removing the rest of 5L/23R’s concrete and extending its runway safety area on one end, White said. It also involves work on a detention pond, relocating and upgrading storm drains. And Liberty Street will be moved and renamed; its new course is tentatively called South Perimeter Access Drive, he said.

Much of the work is shut down during winter, but will restart in earnest in March and continue through the summer. At the end of summer, the contract for Project 3 will be awarded. That will pave as much new runway as possible; a future Project 4 will finish any paving, and install lights last of all, White said.

Most of the needed money is federal, though some will come from the state aeronautics fund, and the Air Guard contributed a “considerable amount,” he said.

“They’ve been a great partner,” White said.

Estimates of just when the reconstruction will be complete have varied. Airport authority president Bill Marrison said in November the expanded runway should reopen in 2019, with the overall project finishing in 2020 or 2021. The environmental assessment, done by CHA and dated July 1, 2016, projected the runway would reopen in 2018.

The 2018 date was set six years ago, based on best-case funding, White said. The airport is required to keep using that date in federal paperwork such as the environmental assessment, even if it doesn’t match current conditions, he said. The actual completion date depends on how much federal funding the airport receives each year.

“If they fund us at the level we’ve been funded at for the past two construction seasons, we should be done with the runway in 2020,” White said. But it could be sooner, or later; Knoxville competes with other airports for project funding. Runway construction has the highest priority, so McGhee Tyson has done well in the last two funding cycles, and planners hope for close to $25 million again this year, White said.

Some indication should come from the FAA around April, he said.

The runway expansion program actually began six years ago, but planning occupied the first three years.

“The specific decision to reconstruct our runway was made by the MKAA in collaboration with the FAA,” White said.

Rationale for the runway expansion and associated work is “kind of a two pronged idea,” he said: military and commercial. In effect one runway already was 10,000 feet long, but that included a paved safety area; now it will be designated as actual runway.

“We really already had the bones here, but it just wasn’t FAA-approved,” White said.

The Air Guard’s KC-135s need 10,000 feet to take off when fully loaded, necessary if the unit is activated, according to CHA. Safety for those planes is stated in the environmental assessment as a justification for the expansion.

Other changes aim to improve efficiency, saving time, electricity and fuel. An old crosswind runway still affected airport layout; now those “oddities” are being fixed with the addition of connector taxiways, such as a mid-field one to let private planes get off the runway after a short landing, White said.

The Knoxville airport doesn’t have a capacity problem yet, and this work probably will be a “20-year solution” to increasing use, he said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Jim Gaines

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