State aviation directors’ creative solutions feted

 - November 26, 2007, 8:04 AM

State aviation directors across the country face myriad airport problems, including some that directly affect users, the future of airports and airport operations. Many directors simply come up with creative solutions.

Mindful of the lack of recognition for their initiatives, the organization that represents these directors–the National Association of State Aviation Officials–has a program that rewards outstanding achievements and draws attention to innovative ideas. NASAO recognizes such achievements with an annual “Most Innovative State Program Award.”

After 9/11 the most pressing issue facing all airports was that of security. The Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission won the 2002 NASAO award for its efforts in dealing with this problem.

“We were especially concerned,” said Robert Mallard, executive director of the commission, “because two of the 9/11 aircraft came out of Boston Logan Airport. I immediately began working with airport managers. I wrote a security directive, and one of the major provisions was for a unified ID to be used throughout the state. If every airport has its own ID, it results in a hodge-podge.

“The Massachusetts Airport Commission decided it would establish a statewide ID card. There is now a uniform standard. The card has the name and photo of the cardholder. It also indicates the cardholder’s function–a tenant, FBO employee, mechanic, maintenance department employee, FAA tower controller, rescue, police personnel, and so on. The cards are color-coded so that it is possible to tell from a distance the person’s designation. Further, airport managers have a password-protected database on every cardholder and every based aircraft.

“It is the responsibility of each airport manager to issue ID cards at his or her airport. An expiration date appears on each card. It can be issued annually or it can be good up to three years, at the option of the aircraft manager. Massachusetts has 42 public-use airports. All use the same style card. Transients who do not have ID cards must be escorted to or from ramp areas.”

Protecting Airports
The 1998 award went to the Washington state aviation division for a land-use program designed to protect endangered airports. There’s hardly a state that doesn’t face the same problem, and it affects all airports, particularly reliever airports.
The Washington state legislature passed a land-use compatibility bill in 1996 that requires local jurisdictions to discourage incompatible development adjacent to public-use airports. The bill required local jurisdictions to submit comprehensive plans for such development.

Another bill, passed in 1998, requires local jurisdictions to protect essential public facilities (EPF). Airports were specifically included in the bill. The Washington state Department of Transportation aviation division is responsible for administrating the land-use program based on these bills.

“We work with local jurisdictions,” said John Shambaugh, the department’s senior planner. “In most cases they are very cooperative. At only a couple of the airports have there been differences between the airport and the local jurisdiction. We’ve been able to communicate airport needs to local authorities and to impress on them that airports have been deemed to be essential public facilities and that they are required to plan for such facilities and for the expansion of these facilities. We also impress on them the need to discourage the siting of incompatible uses adjacent to airports.”

The passage of the two important pieces of legislation has not reduced the efforts of the aviation division to continue to communicate the importance of airports to the welfare of the communities and the state. After they were passed, the division published a 48-page report, “Airports and Compatible Land Use,” that underscores the importance of aviation to the state.

Its opening background statement presents a clearly defined case for the need for aviation facilities in Washington, but it could apply to any state. It states: “Aviation is important to the economic health of Washington and the quality of life of its citizens, businesses and visitors. One of the major challenges of our day is to balance aviation needs with the needs of local communities. In Washington state there are 129 public-use airports identified in the Washington state airport systems plan. All of the airports are available for general aviation use and 13 facilities offer scheduled commercial service. The state has an interest in a healthy aviation system. However, since the state has an ownership interest in only a small percentage of aviation facilities in Washington state, its actual role is more frequently partnership and advocacy.

“Protection of these valuable facilities is of paramount importance to both the economic viability and the quality of life in Washington state. With the population and development increases experienced in our state, airports are coming under increasing pressure from encroaching developments. Through the Washington state aviation policy, the Washington state Transportation Commission finds three areas in which the loss or potential loss of airports will be played out: lack of funding for investment in basic infrastructure preservation and safety improvements; incompatible land uses; and inappropriate environmental litigation. In 1996 the Washington state legislature also recognized the importance of protecting aviation facilities from incompatible land uses.”

Continuing efforts like the publication of this report have helped turn things round in Washington state during the past decade. Back in 1990, a Growth Management Act was passed in the state that devoted only one or two words to aviation, according to Theresa Smith, the aviation division’s manager of aviation services.

“Airports are now identified as essential,” said Smith, “and there are protection requirements. We are helped by having some very strong aviation advocates in our legislature. The legislature now recognizes the economic advantages of airports.”

In July 2002 the Department of Agriculture Economics of Washington State University released a report for the aviation division entitled “Determining Infrastructure Needs for Rural Mobility Functions and Benefits of Rural Airports in Washington.” This report, like the earlier one, contains advocacy information that could be adopted and used by other aviation departments. A few brief excerpts follow:

“With increasing specialization affecting both American businesses and the lives of private citizens, air-transport access to the expertise and markets found in urban areas takes on increasing importance to rural communities. Rural airports were found to provide a wide range of support for local businesses, including agriculture and forest-products businesses. Use ranged from delivery of time-sensitive replacement parts to regular movement of personnel between headquarters and branch locations to transportation for out-of-town expertise. Further, FedEx and UPS operations, aircraft maintenance and parts fabrication, fuel concessions, air taxi/charter operators, experimental airplane parts and kit manufacturing, general aviation aircraft and fixed-base operations also contribute.”

Talk About the Weather
The Colorado division of aeronautics was the 2001 winner of the NASAO Award for developing a real-time weather observation system for its mountain passes.

“In a period of 38 months we had 17 weather-related fatalities,” said Travis Vallin, the state aviation director. “We designed a weather observation system for the mountain passes. The plan calls for the installation of 12 systems. Eight have been commissioned, and we hope to have the other four in service in 18 to 24 months.
“The system will report thunderstorms up to 30 miles away. We put the systems as close to the passes as possible. The AWOS has to be installed next to a heated and insulated building, which can house the computers.

“Information that the system provides, in addition to indicating thunderstorm activity, includes all the data from a standard weather briefing, density altitude, ceiling, visibility, precipitation and winds. It can also carry warnings or special alerts.”

A New Face on Runways
In 2000, NASAO’s award went to Tennessee for an innovative technique for resurfacing runways. The system is called Ultra-Thin Whitetopping. Instead of the standard system of overlaying two inches of asphalt, the runway is milled down and two inches of concrete are poured on top. The system has been used for years by the Tennessee Highway Department, particularly on busy intersections that carry a lot of heavy traffic that causes breakup of the pavement, according to Robert Woods, director of the Tennessee aeronautics division.

“The Savannah-Hardin County Airport, which has a 5,000-foot runway, was the first in the country to use the system,” said Ron Fitzgerald, the project manager.
Its proponents say the process is economical, reduces downtime as a result of resurfacing, lasts much longer than other previous resurfacing methods, is stronger and is easier to see from the air.

“With new technology developed for this system, there is an expansion joint every four feet. The joints are smooth. There is no bump at every joint, such as that usually felt on concrete highways. Additionally, the cement is a special formulation.
The FAA is developing specifications for the system,” said Fitzgerald. “Normally concrete requires a minimum of five inches for resurfacing. With this system only two inches is required, which is how the name Ultra-Thin originated.

“We are hoping to get 30 years of use with this system. We tell people who inquire that we are expecting a 20-year life, but we’re hoping for 30.”

Airports in a number of other states, including South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Illinois, are awaiting FAA approval. The FAA is said to be considering the new system as an AIP-eligible alternative to the reconstruction of asphalt runways.

“We’ve had the system down at Savannah-Hardin County Airport for three winters and we’re very pleased with it,” said Fitzgerald.

Finding Different Perspectives
Last year New Jersey appointed Tom Thatcher as the new director of the state’s division of aeronautics. He had served in the department in the 1980s and was well aware of the problems he would face when he left another state post and began his administration of the aviation division.

To get a handle on those problems Thatcher undertook the rather ambitious task of personally visiting every one of the state’s 48 airports to talk with owners and operators and to let them tell him what their problems were.

His findings were enlightening and his reactions interesting. He came away with both positive and negative observations, which would probably apply if a similar study were conducted in any other state.

“We have entirely too many complacent airport managers who will let small problems become big problems before trying to fix them,” Thatcher said. “You see it especially in relations with their neighbors.

“Some airports left me with the impression of great unrealized potential. Others left me with the impression of lost opportunities. Too many airport owners and operators weren’t out prospecting for customers. They were just sitting there waiting for customers to come to them. And in many cases when a potential flight school customer did come through the door they did little to excite them about learning to fly. In some cases they just suggested that the potential customer pick up a brochure.

“Too many people who work at airports are not professional or even neatly dressed. Yet they deal every day with people who are generally affluent, educated and have high expectations.”