Runway extension: Really about safety?

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on March 15, 2008.

Numbers swirl around the fight over the possible extension of a runway at Craig Municipal Airport. The weight of aircraft, the size of crash zones, the cost of construction: Each side has its own figures.

The most important numbers, though, might be found on a large whiteboard at the Jacksonville Aviation Authority. It lists how the authority believes various members of City Council will vote on adding 1,600 feet to Runway 14-32 at the Regency-area airport.

Ultimately, this decades-long argument all comes down to one vote: Will the City Council allow the authority to break its promise and, in the eyes of opponents, jeopardize residents by expanding the airport's operations? Or, from the other side, will the council meet the needs of pilots by making the runway longer?

As the two sides work to persuade council members to answer that question the "right" way, both sides focus their arguments on safety, although they define the idea differently.

The authority has argued from the beginning that more space for aircraft to land and take off makes the entire process safer, particularly as the number of flight operations at Craig grows.

"We've been extremely fortunate, " said Spence Edwards, president of Sky Harbor, a Craig-based business that houses and fuels airplanes. "At some point in time, someone will abort a takeoff and go off the runway."

Nearby residents don't dispute that more length provides a larger safety margin, but say that's not the point: They argue that the extension makes the surrounding area less safe by attracting more large jets and allowing them to take off carrying more fuel.

"There is a safety issue, " said Dianne Wiles, who lives about 2,500 feet from the end of the runway. "It's the safety of our homes, of our quality of life."


The Aviation Authority has been trying to extend the runway for about 40 years, floating the idea about once every decade. In the 1990s, a ban on expansion was put into the city's comprehensive plan, requiring the authority to go through a laborious process to amend the plan before it could move ahead with the project.

Other roadblocks have been tossed up over the years, most notably a promise in 2001 by the Jacksonville Port Authority board, which then oversaw the airports, that it would no longer seek the extension.

But times have changed and so has the popularity of Craig, authority officials say, making the need for a longer runway more important. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, flight hours for the nation's general aviation fleet increased 2.5 percent from 2005 to 2006, jumped 3.1 percent from 2006 to 2007 and will increase 3.2 percent each year from now until 2017. General aviation flights are those like small planes and executive jets in contrast to commercial flights, such as the ones that use Jacksonville International Airport.

"This has been the consistent approach to why the runway should be extended: to accommodate the growing general aviation need, " said authority spokesman Michael Stewart.

At Craig, the Aviation Authority said, the number of operations, including takeoffs and landings, will increase from 164,000 in 2006 to 237,000 by 2026.

The types of planes coming in, the authority says, will be basically the same sort of mix as now: mainly turboprops, with a small percentage of jets, although Stewart said the number of jets could go from 4 percent of the total traffic to 7 percent. Making the airport meet the needs of those users, the authority said, is its business.

"Our job is to make the runway as safe as possible for the aircraft that operate there, " said Chip Seymour, planning and development director for the Aviation Authority.

To an extent, the authority's safety argument is unassailable: Any pilot will tell you that more room to land or take off does provide a greater margin of error.

Providing a longer runway is similar to widening a narrow road: The added space increases room to maneuver in case something goes wrong.

Though Craig might not have issues now - it has won awards for safety in recent years - a longer runway makes it even safer, pilots say.

"They've got a lot of obstacles in the area, " said Tony Busse, a pilot from Fort Pierce who landed at Craig for the first time a few weeks ago.

The 4,000-foot length of the runway was the first thing he commented on as he landed his single-engine Piper, he said, wondering how jets would deal with the length.

"It's fine for single engines, but when they're coming in and doing an approach at 120 (knots), that runway goes by real fast, " Busse said,

Those who use the runway more regularly had similar things to say.

Tony Jones, an instructor at ATP Flight School at Craig, said of the extension: "People don't understand that a longer runway is a safer runway."

All of the jets that would use a longer runway can fly in and out of Craig now, although the largest of these operate under various restrictions, particularly limits on how much fuel they can carry. On a hot, rainy day, for example, a larger plane would have to cut its fuel load significantly in order to take off from the runway at its current length. That means that on, say, a hot day in July, what could be a nonstop trip to the West Coast instead requires a fuel break, adding time and cost to the trip.


Even the opponents concede that the extra 1,600 feet will make it safer for pilots to land.

"It's a true statement, " said Gerald Rochibaud, a former Navy and commercial pilot, "but not one that matters."

With the longer runway, Craig will go from being "99.999 percent safe to 99.9999 percent safe, " he said. "Is it worth $20 million and [ticking] off the whole neighborhood to get that last 9?"

And though it increases the safety of aviators, the longer runway would increase the areas where the Federal Aviation Administration considers a crash likely to occur, increasing the number of houses that fall into what is known as the impact zones.

"This was planned for the area to be all residential, " said opponent Lad Hawkins, who argues the Aviation Authority should have pushed to have the area around Craig zoned something else if expansion plans were in its future. "We [would] have homes that are now in impact zones that weren't before."

When the residents moved in next to the airport, said neighbor John Bigelow, they viewed it as a small general aviation airport, one devoted to training schools and recreational flying, not the executive jet hub for the area that the authority foresees. "It was written into law that it wouldn't get any bigger, " he said, explaining that he asked about the possibility before buying a home in 1988 and was told the comprehensive plan meant it would never happen.

Plus, opponents say, the aircraft benefiting from the change are ones that shouldn't be encouraged to use Craig in the first place. If the extension is like expanding a country road, they say, it's a change that benefits tractor trailers at the expense of those who live along the roadway.

"They're making it safer for bigger aircraft, " Rochibaud said. "It raises the question: With an airport where residential areas have built up around it, why do you want to bring in bigger airplanes with more fuel?"


The proponents' answer? Economic growth, both present and future.

"If someone is flying in in a $10 million Learjet, " Edwards said, "they're coming to do pretty big business."

The loss of restrictions on things like how much fuel a larger plane could carry will make the airport more attractive, which opponents see as a negative and proponents as a plus.

"A longer runway is a great attractor, " agreed Seth Young, an associate professor in the college of business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach who is not involved with the Craig fight. "With a long-enough runway, you can plan for more regular operations."

Another reason opponents give for the extension: making it easier for corporate entities, like PSS World Medical and Gate Petroleum - both of whom have aircraft at Craig - to use the field. (Gate, in fact, wrote letters to the city several years ago urging that the runway be extended. Opponents have argued this raises ethical questions, as the company is owned by Mayor John Peyton's father, although the state has said there's no violation.)

A longer runway would allow corporate planes, many of which are barred by internal company regulations or insurance restrictions from using runways shorter than 5,000 feet, to use Craig. Five thousand feet is generally considered the standard minimum for airports targeting corporate aviation, the business the Aviation Authority has long said Craig was in.

As Jacksonville grows to be the type of city with more executive jet business, proponents of the extension say, Craig has to be ready to handle it.

The entire community has to "take a bit of the pain associated with growth, " as the region develops, Stewart said.

Such growth could set up future fights, though: If growing popularity does bring more aircraft to the site, there's little opponents could do to stop additional expansion. Although the ordinance that the City Council is considering includes prohibitions, suggested by the staff of the city Planning and Development Department, against larger aircraft using Craig or the runway there being strengthened, such prohibitions conflict with state and federal regulations.

"This could potentially jeopardize present and future funding for the airport, " the state Department of Transportation said about the prohibitions, suggesting the city either not approve the extension or do so without any strings attached.


The City Council will have to decide what to do with that advice over the next four weeks or so. On March 25, the council will have its first reading on the ordinance to change the comprehensive plan, followed in subsequent weeks by a public hearing, a vote by the planning committee and a vote by the Land Use and Zoning Committee. The council's final binding vote is scheduled for April 22.

In the past, the expansion idea was quashed in the early stages, with either the authority or the City Council putting the kibosh on the idea before it got anywhere near the amendment process.

This time, the authority's efforts to amend the comprehensive plan has survived several hurdles, making it likely to come down to a final vote. That final vote will look different from the first time the council approved the idea in January, when 10 of the 19 council members supported it. One of those voting for the longer runway, however, was Jay Jabour, who resigned last month after his election was invalidated by a judge, making a tie - which would go to defenders of the status quo - possible.

With neither side sanguine about a vote that promises to be tight, both proponents and opponents of the extension will spend the next month feverishly looking to sway opinion and votes.

How successful they are will only be known when it comes down to that final, most important number.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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