John Wayne Airport Completes Runway Redesignation

Victoria Soukup
Published in: 

Southern California's John Wayne Airport (SNA) recently renumbered its two runways - without shutting down airfield services - thanks to coordinated efforts by airport officials, the FAA and outside contractors. Outwardly the change occurred overnight; but it had actually been in the works for years.

The project was set into motion in 2010, when a routine airfield survey found that the magnetic bearings of the Orange County airport's runways had shifted since they were constructed 45 years ago. In 1965, the runways were designated 1R-19L (general aviation) and 1L-19R (commercial) based on compass readings at the time. However, due to the gradual shift of Earth's magnetic poles throughout the years, the runways' magnetic bearing changed 1 degree. The difference was just enough for the FAA to require the airport to change its runway designations to 2R-20L and 2L-20R - a project that cost about $885,000 (81% paid for with FAA grants).

Ensuring that the redesignation project not disrupt flight operations was especially challenging, because the airport has only one commercial runway. But SNA officials were adamant about that point. As a result, crews completed much of the work months prior to the airport's critical seven-hour window of opportunity - from 11 p.m. on Sept. 17 to 6 a.m. Sept. 18. The timetable for the final changeover was unusually firm because it had to coordinate with the FAA's 56-day publication cycle of airport updates.


Project: Runway Redesignation
Location: John Wayne Airport (SNA)
Reason: Naturally occurring shift of magnetic poles
Runways Affected: 1L-19R (commercial) 1R-19L (general aviation) became 2L-20R & 2R-20L
Cost: $885,100
Funding: FAA (81% of total cost)
Project Design & Administration: Toltz, King, Duvall, Anderson & Associates (TKDA)
Contractor: All American Asphalt
Subcontractors: PCI; Royal Electric
Airfield Paint: Ennis-Flint
Airfield Guidance Signs: ADB Airfield Solutions.

More Than Paint

Runway redesignations don't happen every day. SNA is among only a handful of U.S. airports that have had to make the change during the past decade. But more will inevitably join the list as our planet's magnetic poles continue to shift ever so slightly.

It's a complicated process that goes well beyond repainting runway numbers, notes Ian Gregor, public information manager for FAA's Pacific Division. "When the magnetic heading changes, we have to update a number of different things," Gregor explains. "This includes updating pilot charts and airport directories, alerting pilots to the planned changes so a pilot looking to land on Runway 19 isn't surprised to see a '20' painted on the runway. It also can require changes to flight procedures if a procedure is based on an outdated magnetic heading."

Additionally, air traffic controllers often need to be trained regarding the new numberings; and airports need to review their instrument landing systems, ground lights and other navigational aids to determine if reprogramming is required.

To ensure all procedures were followed at SNA, the airport contracted Toltz, King, Duvall, Anderson & Associates (TKDA) in February 2013 to design and administer the project. The firm had previously completed a similar initiative for Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) and ran the SNA project from its office in Irvine, CA.

"In a case like this, it was important to hire an architect-engineer like TKDA, who's been through this before, to ensure we were doing everything we had to do," notes Jenny Wedge, SNA's public relations manager. "We wanted to make certain all our bases were covered."

Project personnel sought counsel from other airports that have completed runway redesignations, including Tampa International, Oakland International and MSP. Those airports, however, had the advantage of multiple commercial runways. "Unlike us, they could effectively just close down the runways they were changing for multiple days while using others," Wedge explains.

Setting the Strategy

The airport and TKDA spent four months developing a strategy and working closely with the FAA, recalls Leo Tang, SNA's engineering project manager: "We wanted to be sure everyone at the FAA was on board with our plan."

After the plan was finalized, the airport solicited bids from contractors for airfield and electrical services. Completing as much work as possible before the tightly timed nighttime changeover was crucial, recalls John W. Ahern, vice president of aviation for TKDA. That included identifying and verifying all necessary runway labeling, including labels in the electrical vaults, control room, software programs and policy manuals. The comprehensive process was necessary to ensure that when the changeover occurred, all references to the new runway numbers were correct, Ahern explains.

"We went out and verified everything that had the existing labeling on it, including the electrical cables that run out into the airfield and to each light," he notes. "We had to make sure the labeling was correct so that it aligned with what the actual signs said."

The project team also completed a review of airport software programs and control tower procedures to ensure that all references to the runways were updated.

New Numbers Require New Concrete

SNA's particular redesignations - 1-19s to 2-20s - required new, longer signage, because the numeral "2" is physically wider than "1." In total, the airport had to purchase 20 new signs, each three feet longer than their predecessors. It also had to extend the concrete pads that support the signs.

"Once the pads were finished and the new boxes installed, we put the old numbers back in so that on the changeover night, all we had to do was switch out panels," Tang says.

SNA Project Manager Rick Cathey stresses how important it was to complete such preliminary work before the changeover. "We would not have had enough time to change all the signs, extend the concrete pads and apply the new runway markings if we had to do it in one night," he explains.

Removing 42 old runway markings and applying new ones was one of the last steps completed before the overnight switch. PCI, a parking and highway improvement contractor, scheduled its crews to begin working at night on the smaller airfield markings about a week before the changeover, explains John "JD" Davey, the company's general superintendent. "We started as soon as the blue lights went off at 11 p.m. and had to have everything painted in, complete and off the runway by 6 a.m.," he relates.

In addition to runway markings, 8 to 10 taxiway markings were water blasted off each evening and replaced with Ennis-Flint airfield paint containing reflective beads. "We painted the red boxes with the black border back in, and gradually restored the numbers to the taxiways, which was OK with the FAA and John Wayne Airport," says Davey.

The 60-foot numbers at the ends of the runways were not replaced until the overnight changeover, since they are the most important signage for pilots, he explains. "That night was the most critical night of the entire operation, and we were ready to do it regardless of rain, shine, sleet or snow. The only thing that would have stopped us was lightning within three miles of the runway. When pilots came in to land on the 18th, they needed to see the 20R. There were no ifs, ands or buts about it."

PCI did have a contingency plan for rain: large tents to cover the numbers and torches to dry the area before crews applied new paint.

According to Ahern, consulting the FAA early and coordinating the operations of all parties involved allowed the project to proceed smoothly.

"It's what we do," Ahern notes. "Anytime you're dealing with a runway, everything needs to be done quickly because service depends on it, passengers depend on it and business depends on being able to use that airport."


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