Dulles, O'Hare & Sea-Tac Prepare for Historic Runway Openings

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 

The intertwined web of the U.S. air traffic system will experience notable changes when new runways at three different airports open on Nov. 20. The effects of increased capacity at Dulles International, O'Hare International and Seattle-Tacoma International (Sea-Tac) are sure to be felt nationwide - especially during inclement weather.

Why Nov. 20? Why three at once? It's not for the novelty of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials flying from Washington to Chicago to Seattle on the same day to commemorate all three openings (although that is the plan).

Some say it's because Nov. 20 is one of the few times per year that commercial pilot charts are updated with new airport data. Others attribute the confluence to ongoing FAA efforts to increase capacity. Still others link it to the summer construction season.

Whatever the reason, the resulting effects are sure to be felt.

Norman Mineta promoted the systemwide benefits of Dulles' new runway when he was secretary of transportation: "Making sure the airport can handle more takeoffs and landings each year is the best way to avoid the kind of traffic jams in the sky that cause delays at airports from Savannah to San Diego and Memphis to Miami."

Such benefits, however, don't often come easily. At O'Hare and Sea-Tac, legal challenges from neighboring communities wreaked havoc with project schedules. And all three airports faced unique environmental twists.

"It takes a lot of local political will to move new runways and airports forward," noted acting FAA administrator Robert Sturgell during a recent Associated Press interview.

The trio of runways scheduled to open in November is part of a larger group of Operational Evolution Partnership (OEP) Plan projects the FAA tracks in concert. OEP airports - 35 in all - account for about 75% of all U.S. passenger enplanements.

According to FAA data, 10 airfield projects at eight OEP airports will collectively add the potential for about 400,000 more annual operations and significantly reduce runway crossings. Some of the projects are already complete; others have commission dates through 2011. In total, the group includes five new runways, one airfield relocation, two runway extensions and two end-around taxiways.

The Washington Way

Adding a fourth runway at Dulles International Airport was officially dubbed a "necessity" when aircraft operations grew to more than 509,000 in 2005. Construction of the 9,400-foot long, 150-foot wide north/south runway began in 2006. Total cost is expected to be $266 million, with $200 million coming from Federal Aviation Administration Airport Improvement Program funds.

Originally part of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority's D2 (Dulles Development) capital development program that began in 2001, the runway project stayed on schedule while other projects (including a new concourse and train connection to the international terminal) were either delayed or abandoned when traffic decreased dramatically following the Sept. 11 attacks.

After climbing back to 509,000+ operations in 2005, traffic fell again to nearly 380,000 in 2006 and 383,000 last year. Airport officials, however, remained committed to the long-term benefits of constructing the airport's third north/south runway, which is expected to allow the airport to handle up to 50% more flights during certain inclement weather conditions.

Room to Breathe

Because Dulles has 12,000 total acres of land, project designers Carter & Burgess (now Jacobs) were able to position the new runway a little less than a mile from the airport's current western runway - a major advantage for on-site logistics and necessary for precision runways.

"Construction crews were able to access the site from a remote airport entrance to avoid traveling across the AOA (Aircraft Operation Area)," explains Courtney Prebich, assistant media relations manager for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. "The majority of the construction site and activity, with the exception of links to existing taxiways and utilities, is outside the AOA."

The relatively remote location of the construction site simplified many aspects of the project, but its soil required special preparation.

Crews from Slurry Pavers pulverized and mixed 5% cement about a foot into the soil to stabilize subgrade materials for the 600,000-square-yard site - creating "soil cement." Some areas required three passes through the pulverizing equipment to achieve the proper texture.

Lane Construction then installed a 6-inch thick cement-treated base followed by the 18-inch thick concrete runway.

Other Airfield Enhancements

Like Dulles' fourth runway, a new $63.5 million control tower also avoided delay or cancellation, opening in 2006. The 325-foot tower (whose structural shell was designed by Jacobs Facilities and built by Smoot Construction) is almost twice as tall as its predecessor.

Construction of a fifth runway, which will be Dulles' second east/west runway, is planned but has not yet been scheduled. Until the November opening of its fourth runway, Dulles was operating with runways that dated back to the early 1960s, when the airport originally opened.


No Easy Fix in Chicago

The addition of an eighth runway at O'Hare International makes the prospect of a harsh Chicago winter a little less daunting this year. That's because bad weather is precisely when the new east/west runway north of the terminal will really shine. When open, Runway 9L/27R will allow the airport to maintain triple simultaneous approaches in inclement weather - prompting an expected 95% reduction in weather delays.

The new runway and a 3,000-foot extension to an east/west runway south of the terminal that opened in September are preliminary steps in a multi-phase plan to untangle O'Hare's current system of intersecting runways and create a more efficient parallel configuration similar to Dallas-Fort Worth's or Atlanta's. Currently all but one of O'Hare's seven runways intersect, creating taxing conditions for the airport's air traffic controllers and inefficient traffic patterns on the ground.

The new runway is also a significant part of the O'Hare Modernization Program (OMP), an infrastructure improvement initiative valued at $6.6 billion in 2001 dollars. Cost for the new runway - together with a new air traffic control tower and all the attendant enabling projects for both - is estimated at $500 million. Site prep alone cost $125 million.

"The new runway will provide a two-fold improvement: additional capacity -up to 52,000 operations annually depending on the airlines' schedules and the will of the air traffic controllers - plus significant help alleviating our single largest cause of delays, bad weather," notes Rosemarie Andolino, OMP executive director. "FAA projections anticipate delay reductions of 24 to 16 minutes."

Adjusting on the Fly

The land for O'Hare's new runway was anything but a greenfield site. In addition to including a variety of environmental challenges, it inspired legal action from residents in the neighboring communities of Elk Grove and Bensenville.

"Just three hours after we began to put shovels in the ground, the FAA issued a 45-day stay," recalls Andolino. "Two of about 200 surrounding communities opposed us; but it was enough to adversely impact construction."

After the stay was lifted, the permitting process was delayed when Army Corps of Engineers personnel were called away to help with post-Katrina efforts.

Neither obstacle, however, derailed the project.

"We proceeded with enabling projects that didn't impact the land acquisition area," explains Andolino. "We excavated and moved a creek and also constructed a gabion structure that allowed crews to keep working through the winter."

The litigation also affected the related extension of Runway 10L/28R, which nevertheless was completed nearly two months ahead of schedule. Because a rail line crossed the land acquisition area, the airport had to move the line to an interim position to keep the project moving.

"It cost $15 million, but the operational benefits were worth it," notes Andolino. "Time is money. The overall project is like a puzzle of inter-related pieces. We changed our sequencing to mitigate the effects of the litigation and keep the project on schedule and on budget."

Pressing ahead with enabling projects and keeping the new runway project on schedule allowed the airport to catch a break regarding the weather. In mid-September, Chicago experienced a 24-hour downpour of rain that dumped nearly 7 inches of rain at the airport. Airline service was temporarily suspended, the interstate leading to the airport was closed, but the new runway had been paved and sealed since July. Even the erosion control measures were in place.

"We were fortunate," notes Andolino. "The outdoor construction season is so short here anyway, a rain like that at a different point in the process could have been a tough setback to overcome."

Re-routing a 90-inch pressurized water main that serves seven surrounding communities was yet another unique challenge to the project.

"It didn't have a shut-off valve; so we had to perform bypass surgery," explains Andolino.

Crews installed a 48-inch temporary main, diverted the water and then installed a new 90-inch pipe - complete with a shut-off valve.

Other complicating factors included moving the employee entrance to the airport and working around existing underground utility lines. The American Airlines' employee parking lot also needed to be moved to make room for the new air traffic control tower.

"Everything is tied in to something else," relates Andolino. "It was an incredible process to manage. This was one of the country's largest construction projects at one of the world's busiest airports. We required a high level of professionalism from our participants and they came through for us."

Throughout the project, efforts were made to be as environmentally conscious as possible. "We looked into the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program, but it's more oriented to vertical residential and commercial building," explains Andolino. "So we created our own Sustainable Design Manual (SDM) based on LEED, but customized for flat, heavy civil projects."

The SDM broke the overall project into categories such as airside/landside and occupied/unoccupied areas. Components included a vegetative roof on the base building of the new control tower, low-VOC sealants and paints, efforts to keep all dirt on-site, harvesting concrete and asphalt on-site, procuring materials within 500 miles of the airport and implementing standards regarding fuel efficiency and idling for construction vehicles and equipment.

Several thousand visitors attended Community Day at O'Hare to help celebrate its new runway. One of the marquee events was a 5K run that used the runway for part of its course.

"We've been recognized by Congress and AAAE (American Association of Airport Executives) for our leadership regarding sustainability in projects like this," says Andolino, noting other airports have already begun to imitate O'Hare's manual.

The project also included a $40 million mitigation project. To compensate for developing about 150 acres of low-quality on-site wetlands, the airport enhanced about 450 acres of higher quality land for park areas in neighboring communities.

Savoring the Moment

Given all the challenges involved, it's no wonder everyone felt like partying when the runway was complete. In September, the airport held a Community Day to mark the runway's official opening in November.

"It was great way to celebrate this historic occasion," notes Andolino. "This is the first runway opening here since 1971."

Given regional opposition to new runways, she explains, the airport focused on maintaining its existing infrastructure for many years. "After the terminal expansion and significant gains were achieved in efficiency at the gates, the airfield became the constraining factor," she explains. "It was time for new runways."

Community Day allowed everyone involved to enjoy the accomplishment before the runway went live.

"The contractors, designers and other participants got to see the fruits of their labor and share it with their families," she relates. "And it gave the public a rare chance to actually set foot on a brand new runway, to be in areas they wouldn't normally have access to."

Andolino puts the long project in perspective by tracing it back to congressional hearings in the summer of 2000, when a challenge was issued to local leaders to decreased airport delays.

"Mayor Daley made a commitment to the effort in 2001; funding was announced in 2003; we received our record of decision in 2005; and now we're ready to cut ribbon," notes Andolino. "In many places, big plans like that sit on the shelf or they don't get funded. Chicago is a city that gets things done."

And there's plenty more to get done. As the Runway 9L/27R project was nearing completion, the bidding process for the next runway project at the west and east ends of Runway 10C was already underway. Construction is slated for spring 2009, and it promises to be another challenging project. Its site has a cargo building and cemetery on it.


Sea-Tac Arms Itself Against Mother Nature

Portland and Seattle are often the butt of jokes about their dreary, rainy weather, but Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) is doing everything it can to make sure Mother Nature doesn't have the last laugh.

As a Category IIIB runway, the new runway at Sea-Tac required 4,000 hours of uninterrupted navigational aid testing.

It plans to drastically reduce weather-related flight delays (and improve airfield efficiency during good weather, too) with a third runway. During the runway's first full year of operation, it's expected to cut flight delays at Sea-Tac in half and save airlines and travelers millions of dollars each year.

At an estimated final price of $1.013 billion ($115 million under the 2003 budget), cost has been a major public relations issue. "We talk about a cost/benefit ratio of two to one," says Mark Reis, Sea-Tac's managing director, "but that's an extraordinarily conservative estimate. It compares updated construction costs with the fuel savings to the airlines based on their costs in 1995. Those costs have increased considerably since then, so the savings will be much greater. It also doesn't include any financial benefits to individual flyers who will experience fewer and shorter delays."

The runway's location and positioning will account for much of the anticipated improvements; special equipment adds another layer of enhancements. Previously, the airport's two runways were too close to each other to allow more than one stream of in-bound traffic during lower visibility (clouds lower than 5,000 feet or visibility of five miles or less) - conditions that prevail at Sea-Tac fully 44% of the time, according to 10 years of National Weather Service data. The new runway will allow two streams of traffic to arrive simultaneously, netting obvious efficiencies.

As a Category IIIB runway, the new 8,500-foot airstrip will be equipped with specialized approach lights and navigational aids that allow aircraft to land during low-visibility weather. Pilots are trained how to land on such runways during conditions with zero vertical visibility. Sea-Tac is one of only a few airports in the country with all of its runways certified for low-visibility operations.

A Long (and Difficult) Time Coming

Getting construction of the new runway rolling proved to be a long-term battle on many fronts. Airport officials introduced the idea as early as 1989, but it took until 1995 for the Puget Sound Regional Council (which heads overall transportation planning) to embrace a new runway as the right solution to the area's air capacity woes. That's when the project's pace really decelerated. Almost a decade elapsed while lawyers worked to settle lawsuits filed by airport neighbors.

Reis assumed duties as Sea-Tac's managing director in 2004, during the short period after the final court decisions and the beginning of construction. Serving at the airport since 1997, however, he personally experienced most of the process - a process characterized as "hugely controversial" and "politically harrowing" by the local press.

"The land acquisition (500 properties for about $234 million) was relatively smooth," recaps Reis. "Litigation regarding the environmental impact of the project had by and far the most disruptive impact.

"Some were cases about highly technical issues regarding the permits, others were just looking for more mitigation. They all added costs to the process - legal expenses, additional permitting, penalties, extra construction expenses."

Because the delays were so long, everything cost more due to rising inflation.

The cases - at least 20 separate suits - also made the huge project more difficult to manage. "You'd think you were about to hit a milestone," he explains, "and it would suddenly stop; it was back to the design (phase)."

After numerous rounds of appeals, the last case was decided in federal court with a unanimous decision in the airport's favor. In the end, runway construction displaced about 20 acres of mostly low-quality wetlands; to compensate, the airport created or enhanced about 180 acres of other wetlands. About 113 acres were on-site; 65 were about 20 miles away, near the Green River. Efforts to enhance two creeks were also main components of the overall $53.6 million mitigation plan.

Actual construction of the runway was complete in about four years, but the entire process took about two decades - "a generation in the making" as one Seattle-Times reporter put it.

Lots of Green

Sea-Tac's runway project included many environmental initiatives beyond wetlands mitigation. Most fall into two categories: dirt and water.

"One of the hallmarks of this project is a retaining wall, a very expensive mechanically stabilized earth wall we built to avoid having to move a creek," notes Reis. "It's the tallest of its kind in North America."

The 1,430-foot long, 130-foot tall structure includes concrete fascia panels and layers of galvanized steel straps, and is the largest of three retaining walls for the runway's embankment.

"It took a huge amount of fill - more than 16 million cubic yards of dirt - to create the embankment," Reis says. "At its lowest point, the site was 100 feet below the final elevation of the runway."

About 3 million cubic yards were recycled from on-site excavation.

Total cost for the embankment area was more than $467 million.

The overall volume of fill dirt spread across a 350-acre jobsite ties directly to water, the other major category.

"With hundreds of acres of exposed dirt subjected to our Northwest climate for months on end, we treated a huge amount of stormwater - more than 600 million gallons from 2004 to 2007," explains Reis.

Seven stormwater ponds and four treatment centers were used throughout the project, at a cost of more than $85 million. The specific treatment system selected uses chitosan, a product made from recycled crab shells, to cause soil particles to drop out of the water. Water then passes through sand filters before it's released into area creeks.

"It's a very high-tech system," Reis comments. "The water from the construction site is actually cleaner than the background water it's released into."

Sea-Tac's overall mitigation efforts - its stormwater management strategy in particular - garnered it an Environmental Achievement Award from Airports Council International - North America (ACI-NA) in August.

John Creighton, president of the Port of Seattle Commission, praised the stormwater management project for its creativity and "dramatic results" to improve local watersheds.


2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement

Giving back to the community is central to what Charlotte Douglas International Airport and its operator, the City of Charlotte Aviation Department, is about, and last year was no different. 

Throughout 2022, while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, we continued our efforts to have a positive impact on the Charlotte community. Of particular note, we spent the year sharing stories of how Connections Don't Just Happen at the Terminal - from creating homeownership and employment opportunities to supporting economic growth through small-business development and offering outreach programs to help residents understand the Airport better.

This whitepaper highlights the construction projects, initiatives, programs and events that validate Charlotte Douglas as a premier airport.

Download the whitepaper: 2022 Charlotte Douglas International Airport Report of Achievement.



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