A quiet, yet sweeping, transformation has occurred in the way Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) manages and maintains its airfield pavement. Efforts have spanned multiple years, cost millions of dollars and required commitment across many departments. All the work, however, is paying off - in lower maintenance costs, longer lifecycles and safer runways, taxiways and ramp areas.
The primary catalyst for organization-wide change was an airfield pavement discrepancy report flagged during the airport's Part 139 compliance inspection in December 2011. The FAA considered the issue serious enough that it required a written plan for improvement, which the airport promptly provided in February 2012.
Project: Airfield Pavement Maintenance
One of the first things LAX did was hire a consultant, Sightline, to perform a markings audit, explains David Shuter, deputy executive director of Facilities Engineering & Maintenance. Issues identified ran the gamut from peeling paint to markings with improper dimensions and non-current layouts. Reflectivity, which affects pilots' ability to see markings at night, was a particular problem.
"We found out what needed to be done, split up the work between in-house crews and contractor, crafted a detailed plan and did it," recalls Shuter. "At our next Part 139 inspection, in January 2013, the FAA inspector found that we had zero discrepancies."
Donna Speidel, president of Sightline, lauds LAX for its quick corrective action. Crews from Sterndahl Enterprises removed most of the airport's existing markings and replaced them with new, updated versions in about six months. "They (Los Angeles World Airports) had a daunting amount of work to do, and they made a fast turnaround," she recalls.
Director of Operations Barry Rondinella considers hiring an outside expert with fresh eyes an important part of the airport's dramatic change. "The first step to recovery is acknowledging you have a problem," Rondinella quips, only half-jokingly. "We needed to understand the totality of our issues before we could turn the tide. Paint and pavement maintenance had not been stressed for years; and in the meantime, the ACs (FAA advisory circulars) had changed, and our machinery and training became outdated."
Shuter identifies the airport's new Airfield Markings Regulations and Compliance Unit as a key component in the fix. "Before, we didn't have an organization that was dedicated to airfield paint," he recalls. "That's no longer a missing piece."
Airports Maintenance Supervisor Conor Roche, who directly oversees the unit, is enthusiastic the airport's new six-gun striping unit from M-B Companies. "It works from one end of the runway to the other, laying down precise, sharp lines," Roche reports. "And it can paint two different colors at once." Crews have been so pleased with the equipment's accurate millage, even bead disbursement and other performance factors; the department has budgeted for another unit to use on taxiways.
Ralph Morones, director of the Maintenance Services Division, knows firsthand how many the markings and other airfield maintenance crews contribute to the overall airport, but he also credits Rondinella and Shuter. "Management really stepped up for us and gave us the equipment and support we didn't have in the past," he explains.
With the needed marking adjustments complete, LAX is now in maintenance mode. Cleaning - rather than painting or repainting at regular intervals - is now emphasized.
"By washing markings when they need it, we don't have to repaint as often," explains Operations Chief Jeff Mort. "If you continue to add layers of paint to markings, the buildup can eventually break away and cause FOD (foreign object debris) that could be ingested by aircraft engines."
The savings associated with cleaning vs. automatically repainting could potentially be considerable. Speidel estimates that it costs about 50 cents per foot to clean markings and about $5 per foot to remove and repaint them. The difference isn't fully tenfold if markings are still thin enough to be just repainted instead of removed, but it's still about $2 vs. 50 cents per foot.
Even though power washing costs more in California than in other markets, investing in the preventive measure will allow LAX to prolong the life of its markings and postpone replacement, notes Speidel.
Since the change in strategy, markings are repainted or replaced only as needed, rather than on a prescribed calendar schedule. Markings in high traffic areas are repainted as often as once monthly, while others can last for years with regular cleanings, estimates Speidel. Last year, Roche's painting staff (two crews, each with six people) covered 2.8 million square feet.
Speidel prescribes water blasting at a relatively low pressure (about 20,000 psi) to clean the dirt and stains off markings without disturbing their reflective glass beads. "If markings weren't applied well originally, they can come up during cleanings," she cautions.
LAX rents power washers for its crews to use rather than contracting out the work. Speidel considers this a sound approach, and reports that the airport's personnel are becoming skilled power washers. "I prefer to see an airport empowering its own crews with equipment, knowledge and resources," she explains. "They have a vested interested in maintaining the airfield properly."
Now that markings are no longer repainted at preset intervals, checking their condition regularly has become more crucial. LAX seems to have taken Speidel's mantra - "monitor for maintenance" - to heart. Airport Operations personnel evaluate airfield pavement condition three times per day rather than the once daily schedule required by the FAA. "Inspectors document discrepancies and changes in condition, and put in work orders for maintenance," explains Mort.
"A lot of what we attack day to day comes from what the inspectors find," adds Roche. "And it's not just centerlines that need attention; it's also hold bars, signs, etc."
Stretching the span between marking replacements is especially important at an airport as busy as LAX. Last year, it moved nearly 63.7 million passengers and more than 1.9 million tons of air cargo via 605,000+ operations on four runways.
"When we close a runway for maintenance, it disproportionally affects the others. So we accomplish as much as we can at once," explains Rondinella.
While one crew repairs concrete, another will remove and repaint markings. At the same time, electricians may change bulbs as other workers mow the grass that's too close to cut when the runway is active. "We also coordinate with the FAA technical operations crews, so they can get in and check or repair their equipment," notes Mort.
In addition to updating equipment, forming specialized crews and modifying maintenance strategies, LAX also initiated cultural changes. One is a renewed emphasis on training and understanding exactly what the FAA expects regarding airfield markings. "We really dug into the ACs and became subject matter experts," says Mort. "It became a focus, and we're in a much
better position now."
Frontline inspectors and maintenance personnel are systematically sent to Sightline symposiums to eliminate knowledge gaps among crews. "(Those) who have attended really rose to the challenge, soaked up the training like a sponge and now apply it in the field," reports Roche. Inspectors are also armed with kits including tape measures, current ACs and other tools needed to check marking.
The department is also working to build a cadre of employees who want to build a career at LAX. "All of our positions are city personnel classifications. Traditionally, the way to get promoted was to move from location to location, like from city hall to the library system," explains Rondinella. "We're trying to change that. We want airport specialists who understand the safety implications of everything that goes on here."
Roche already sees the culture evolving, and links changes to the new emphasis on training. "They take pride in doing their jobs well," he explains. "They're enthused to be at the airport and want to stay here."
Shuter stresses the importance of cooperation between LAX's Facilities Maintenance and Operations divisions. "One can't do it without the other," he notes.
Looking in from the outside, Speidel notes a new sense of cooperation and mutual respect between individuals and their sections. "Everyone is working together toward the same goal," she relates.
Joe Sawmiller saw a related metamorphosis at LAX when he served as program manager during HNTB's four-part, largely airfield pavement management and engineering contract with the airport. Now with Hatch Mott MacDonald, Sawmiller still keeps a watchful eye on the progress of pavement management and other pavement-related projects at LAX.
"I'll always have a special place in my heart for LAX," he reflects. "They've accomplished so much and really embraced some pretty big changes."
Sawmiller says LAX was excellent about including all the stakeholders needed to keep projects moving: "In addition to the obvious participation by Operations and Maintenance, they included Facilities/ Engineering, Planning, Properties and Grant Administration/Finance. And senior management paid a lot of attention to the process. Everyone from the top down made airfield maintenance a high priority."
Two major areas of change were friction testing/rubber removal and pavement cataloging/assessment. Sawmiller commends LAX officials for committing to a 100% visual survey of all x square feet of pavement at the airport rather than settling for a compliant, yet less effective, network level pavement review.
"They really saw the light, and wanted to do it right," he recalls. "Now, they have a comprehensive database of the entire airfield's condition. With this baseline, they can optimize the maintenance and management of their largest asset."
Collecting the data was a laborious process, recalls Shuter: "They inspected everything slab by slab, each 400 square-foot panel at a time."
Visual inspections, combined with "core and bore" data from geotechnical crews, deflection data from non-destructive testing and friction testing results, provided invaluable information for planners - some Sawmiller describes as "eye-opening."
The discovery of reduced Mu values (the numeric expression of runway friction that predicts aircraft braking efficiency) and other runway anomalies led to a new friction testing program. After initially renting the necessary equipment, LAWA purchased its own in 2011. These days, runways are tested once per week; and rubber is removed (as needed) every three weeks on the north runways and every two weeks on the older south runways.
"It's a more sophisticated and reliable approach," says Sawmiller.
In addition to inspiring new maintenance practices, LAX's pavement survey may also eventually influence the terms of lease agreements. Separating data about tenant-managed pavements from LAWA-managed pavements illuminates unrecovered maintenance costs, Sawmiller explains. By including specific pavement maintenance standards in future contracts, some costs could be shifted to tenants in the future.
Dynatest, the company that manufactured the airport's Runway Friction Tester, also provided consulting services and collaborated with HNTB on studies that analyzed LAX' previous removal methods and presented suggestions for improvements. "By slowing the hydro blasting machine down a hair - just one or two miles per hour - we helped them remove more rubber, increase their friction numbers and stretch the time between cleanings," explains Frank Holt, senior vice president of Dynatest Consulting.
Changing the way LAX evaluates and compensates its power washing contractor also helped. "With a small window to clean pavement and a contract based purely on production, it's no surprise the contractor was rushing," says Holt. "By adding performance and quality control measures, they've gotten much better results."
Shuter understands that rubber removal is a tricky task: "There are so many factors: pressure and volume of water, angle and height of nozzles, truck speed, etc."
Holt, whose professional career has focused on pavement friction since 1972, agrees: "Too fast, and the machine doesn't clean enough; too slow, and it damages the pavement. Now, they clean only where and when they need to, based on mu values. This has a positive effect on capital expenditures and the longevity of their concrete."
While LAX considers improved marking maintenance an important FOD reduction measure, it's by no means the only one. "We come at it from a lot of different angles: sweepers that run all three shifts, magnets for metal and three airfield operations superintendents who monitor traffic and constantly pick up materials," describes Morones. Extra vigilance is used where service roads cross taxiways, and crews know to watch for damage to the edges of pavement whenever an ultra-heavy, extra wide A-380 rolls through -- operations that are increasing, notes Roche.
The combination of efforts seems to be working. "Given our volume, we have very few FOD calls from pilots," reports Shuter.
Sawmiller expects LAX to continue refining its approach to airfield management and maintenance. By continually updating the database from its pavement survey, it could develop a powerful tool, he explains: "Eventually, when maintenance workers go out to fill a crack or pick up a piece of FOD, they will know the entire history of that particular piece of pavement. That will allow the airport to be proactive and forensic-minded about maintenance. They'll be able to address root causes and efficiently schedule the most important work in the highest priority places. Eventually, with enough data, precise predictive modeling could put them ahead of needs."
Speidel hopes the vigilance about markings continues, too. "Improving markings is a process, not an event," she advises, noting that most airports need improvements. "Just because an airport hasn't been cited, doesn't mean its markings are good, or even OK. Airfield markings are poor worldwide, and are something that's off the radar for most airports. Pilots become accustomed to operating without good markings, and airports don't often stop to evaluate their effectiveness until they have a problem or audit."
Both Speidel and Sawmiller stress the benefits of taking proactive rather than reactive measures. "Airfield pavement is most airports' largest asset to maintain," Sawmiller explains. "And there are genuine opportunities to save significant money over the long run. One dollar spent now can easily save $5 to $10 down the road when a pavement reaches its critical threshold."