Partial Runway Replacement Saves Time & Money at Atlanta Int'l

© Aerial Innovations of Georgia Inc.
© Aerial Innovations of Georgia Inc.
Jeff Winke
Published in: 

Executives at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) recently became official fans of "not throwing the baby out with the bathwater." By replacing the workhorse center strip of Runway 8L-26R and leaving its seldom-used outer edges undisturbed, the bustling hub not only saved time and money on construction, it also minimized operational disruptions and related costs for ATL's carriers. 

Project: Runway Pavement Replacement
Location: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Int'l Airport 
Owner/Operator: City of Atlanta/Dept. of Aviation
Runway: 8L-26R
Total Length: 9,000 ft.
Type: Category III Arrival Runway
Est. Cost: $35 million
Construction Mgmt: Hartsfield-Jackson 
Development Program
Principal Design Partners: Aviation Infrastructure Solutions Joint Venture (Pond & Company; Michael Baker Int'l)
Additional Design Partners: Corporate 
Environmental Risk Management; Key Engineering; Long Engineering
Construction: Sept. 15 - Oct. 14, 2014
Grading & Paving Contractors: C.W. Matthews Contracting/McCarthy Improvements Joint Venture
Electrical Contractor: Brooks-Berry-Haynie & Associates
Runway & Taxiway Lighting: ADB Airfield Solutions
Key Challenge: Minimizing disruptions to flight operations at the world's busiest passenger airport
Noteworthy Detail: Airport saved considerable time & money by replacing center strip of runway & leaving less-worn outside edges intact  
Associated Project: Permanent construction gate for north side of airport 
Construction Mgmt: Hartsfield-Jackson 
Development Program
Design: Aviation Infrastructure Solutions Joint Venture
Electrical Design & Security Controls: Key Engineering 
Key Benefits: Reducing construction traffic on airfield; facilitating flow of contractor work & flight operations

Last fall, crews replaced the center strip of the 9,000-foot Category III arrival runway in 29 days, at an estimated cost of $35 million. In contrast, a 2006 full-width replacement of the the adjacent Runway 8R-26L cost $91 million and took 59 days. (Both projects also included replacing associated taxiways.)

With the recent partial replacement complete, ATL's baby is, indeed, safe and dry. And with more than 2,500 flights per day and 900,000 aircraft movements per year, the world's busiest passenger airport can't have it any other way. Last year, more than 96 million passengers passed through ATL's terminals, with carriers serving more than 150 U.S. destinations and 60 international cities.

Keep 'Em Flyin'

When Runway 8L-26R's pavement started to show fatigue in recent years, safeguarding the airport's overall schedule of takeoffs and landings became an immediate and paramount goal. Like an NFL play that scores or a stirring ballet performance, timely airfield operations rely on carefully choreographed, well-practiced plans. ATL operating with one of its five high-volume runways out of service for renovations is like the Patriots playing without Tom Brady or the Bolshoi performing one dancer short: It's anything but business as usual and far tougher to succeed. 

"With Runway 8L-26R, we're looking at 500 domestic, international and cargo flights each day," explains Norma Click, senior project manager with Planning and Development at ATL. "Our construction timeline and execution needed to be extremely tight."

Officials consequently tasked the airport's on-call engineering consultant, Aviation Infrastructure Solutions Joint Venture, with designing the reconstruction of the airport's northernmost runway and two of its high-speed taxiways in January 2012.

As leaders of the joint venture, Pond & Company and Michael Baker International managed the overall design and divided the project into three components: pavement, electrical and markings. Corporate Environmental Risk Management provided on-site construction support; Key Engineering provided electrical design services; and Long Engineering assisted with runway design - specifically the drainage/underdrain design and erosion control plans.

Although runways the age of 8L-26R are usually replaced en masse, the airport's tight timeframe and funding inspired Aviation Infrastructure Solutions to evaluate other options. In turn, the joint venture team and ATL civil engineers John Rone and Bob Mahfood conducted a pavement study to ascertain the precise condition of the runway.

Project leaders were not at all surprised by the study's results, recalls Quintin Watkins, assistant vice president with Baker International. The center of the runway was in most need of repair, while the sections that flank it on each side were intact and functional. Based on the research findings, the design team concluded that an innovative partial replacement would be speedier and more cost-efficient than a traditional full replacement. 

 "We realized that the same performance could be achieved with replacement of only the keel or center portion of the runway, while leaving the less-trafficked outer panels as-is," Watkins explains. 

Replacing only the center 100-foot keel section of the 150-foot wide runway saved the team 33% of materials, details Joseph Snyder, Baker's project engineer. "We also estimate that we saved 14 days of work on the project," he notes. 

In addition to minimizing construction costs for the airport and reducing disruption to passengers, the abbreviated schedule translated directly into cost savings for the airport's carriers. And such costs add up quickly. Airport officials estimate that every day a runway is out of service at ATL, it costs airlines $1.5 million in increased fuel costs due to increased queuing and taxiing.

Tim Fredlund, principal/senior project manager with Pond & Company, explains that full-width pavement replacements have become the norm due to airports' operational reliability needs. "However, as we evaluated the actual conditions (at ATL), we concluded that the keel-section approach would allow for a significant time savings and a significant reduction in construction materials," Fredlund relates. "Additionally, the city of Atlanta would recognize significant cost savings, reducing the total construction area by 37%, from 150,000 square yards to 95,000 square yards of concrete, including the two high-speed taxiways that needed replacement."

From demolition through finishing and other final touches, crews had 29 days to complete the project.
From demolition through finishing and other final touches, crews had 29 days to complete the project.

New Design, Shorter Schedule 

Aviation Infrastructure Solutions and ATL engineers saved additional time and cost by redesigning the various layers of the pavement being replaced. Previously, the section was composed of 16 inches of Portland Cement Concrete on 6 inches of cement treated base and 6 inches of soil cement. By converting the pavement to 20 inches of Portland Cement Concrete on 2 inches of an asphalt leveling base (after milling the base material to allow for the added depth), the design team was able to offer the same level of structural support but reduce the time required to replace the runway. With the new design set, the design team established an aggressive 29-day construction schedule to meet ATL's operational needs.

Another innovative project strategy was the use of a two-step paving train that allowed crews to insert reinforcements between the two layers of concrete. Welded wire reinforcements were used to strengthen the 25-by-50-foot panels designers specified to match the dimensions of panels used when the runway was built in 1984. Although 25-by-25-foot panels are now standard at ATL, the reinforcements elevated the longer panels to the current square panels' performance level, making it possible to follow the runway's original joint pattern.

Boosting Sustainability 

On a broad level, performing a partial rather than full runway replacement allowed ATL to reduce the amount of new materials used and construction debris generated during the 8L-26R project. However, engineers also included specific elements to boost the airfield's long-term sustainability.  

In order to take advantage of new developments in airfield lighting technology, the airport converted a significant portion of its north complex from traditional incandescent lamps to new LED lamps during the pavement replacement.

ATL is one of the first large U.S. hubs to convert to all-LED runway lighting.

Until recently, only portions of ATL's taxiways included LED lights. Significantly expanding their use is expected to dramatically reduce the airfield's energy consumption. 

Following the recent approval of LED runway edge lights, 8L-26R was one of the first runways at a large U.S. hub to be converted  to all-LED lighting. ATL expects to cut the runway's electrical demand 50% to 60% by replacing its previous runway and taxiway lighting with more advanced technology from ADB Airfield Solutions. New LED runway lights include high-intensity edge and end lights as well as medium-intensity guard lights. Taxiways were upgraded with medium-intensity centerline and edge lights. 

A separate project will replace all other runway and taxiway lights with LEDs by this fall. To date, LED lights have been installed on all runways.

Reusing demolished material was another sustainability initiative taken during the runway replacement. Approximately 49,000 tons of milled soil cement from the old runway's sub-base was recycled into chip stone treated base and used on an adjacent ATL project. In addition, crews hauled 113,000 tons of concrete slabs that were removed from the runway to a disposal yard near the airport, where they were crushed and re-sold as graded aggregate base for future projects. 

Nary a Month

Replacing a high-traffic runway at the busiest passenger airport in the world, while also maintaining ramp access for cargo and general aviation traffic, requires an A380-load of planning and coordination. Ensuring airfield access for workers and materials while observing strict FAA security guidelines for construction activity are two typical challenges. 

On-site contractors at ATL were given a strict 29-day work window - from 11 p.m. on Sept. 15 to 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 14. During this tight time frame, C.W. Matthews Contracting removed the old runway and constructed the new runway to finish grade, and McCarthy Improvements completed the concrete paving. Working in concert, crews demolished and replaced a total of 95,040 square yards of concrete pavement. 

Raising the degree of difficulty for the project, President Barack Obama flew into ATL the very first day of the runway closure. In preparation, the airport shut down access to the airfield and adjacent roads to maintain security. Despite the extra hubbub, the joint-venture team, already on site, continued its demolition work in the restricted-access area and maintained a productive workflow toward its impending deadline. 

Strict schedules and a visit from the leader of the Free World notwithstanding, the construction team finished the project without a single lost-time accident. With crews averaging 350 workers per shift and logging a total of 210,000 work-hours, there were no reportable contractor injuries during the 29-day effort - an important accomplishment in ATL Project Manager Click's book.  

"When I stood on the beautifully completed runway the night before it officially reopened, I truly appreciated the hard work and phenomenal coordination that made this project such an outstanding success," she relates. "It took every person working together to do what we did in only 29 days! It was a true testament to the high caliber of people on our team." 



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