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Why One Airport’s Runway Overhaul is So Complex
Inside the carefully choreographed effort to keep Reagan National Airport's runways open.
Every year, over 20 million passengers traverse Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s (DCA) runways, making it a critical gateway to the Nation’s Capital. But just like any major artery, it requires regular maintenance and upkeep and, occasionally, an overhaul.
A relic of the airport’s 1940s birth, its airfield features three intersecting runways. At 6,869 feet in length, the main north-south runway – 1/19 – is the airport’s longest. In most cases, DCA is limited to single runway operations due to the airfield design.
An airfield design with perpendicular runways can be a bit constraining. For instance, take DCA’s nearby sister airport – Washington Dulles International (IAD). It has four runways, three of which are parallel. Closing one may hamper air traffic flow, but it won’t shut down the entire airfield.
So how does an airport like DCA repair its aging runways? A tactically choreographed runway rehabilitation effort has been taking place for seven months this year, which involves closing the airfield each night.
When it comes to shutting down the airfield each night, DCA already has very few aircraft operations between 10 p.m. and 6:59 a.m. due to the airport’s so-called Nighttime Noise Rule. Even though this rule was far more prevalent with louder airliners back in the day, Cirium Diio schedule data shows just a handful of arrivals after 11 p.m. prior to the start of construction.
Airlines have still been forced to rearrange their schedules, and construction crews work against the clock each night to reopen the airfield. Any delay in an originating morning flight from DCA could create ripples in the aircraft’s overall schedule.
“There is a lot of coordination…because of the project,” James Keogh – the project’s manager from Lagan Aviation and Infrastructure, which specializes in runway overhauls – told AirlineGeeks during an interview. “We have a fairly definitive timeline…generally 11 p.m. to 6 a.m. and the airlines are aware of this.”
Although Keogh and his crew near the edge of airlines’ schedules, he says that there have been no major disruptions so far. “It’s our biggest thing, making sure we’re off every morning. So far it’s been successful. There’s been no, sort of, disruption outside of the planned works and the planned impacts on the airfield,” he added.
Rehabilitating a runway is as much an art in construction as it is in time management.
Not like a Roadway
While most runways are made with asphalt or concrete, similar to a roadway, the process of overhauling them can be a bit more daunting. Beneath the top layer is a network of lights and electrical components to illuminate the runway at night and during poor weather.
Priyam Shah manages construction projects for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which oversees operations at both Reagan National and Dulles airports. He shared some in-depth details on the overhaul.
“You don’t see that there is so much electrical work involved in a runway project, but there is a lot,” Shah said. “When the planes hit the center of the runway, these lights do take a lot of heavy impacts, and they are [a] very important part of a [instrument] landing system.”
As part of the runway restoration project, MWAA will replace the lighting system on most of the airfield.
“So we are also rehabbing that as part of this. And when I said rehabbing, we are completely replacing that entire system. It goes hand in hand with the paving work, so the sequence has to be exactly right. There are like five different steps to this light installation process and paving off the runway,” Shah added.
The construction team will replace nearly 400 LED lights in total, including 7,200 feet of electrical conduit, 177,000 tons of asphalt will be used to rehabilitate both runways 1/19 and 15/33.
During the interview, James Keogh also provided some insight on why a runway construction project differs from, say, a typical roadway.
“One of the big differences is the polymer bitumens that we use in the mix to give it additional strength and performance at greater variances in temperature and things like that,” he shared. “The specific allocation and the tolerance on it is generally tighter than on a highway…[it’s] more stringent and the implications of not achieving that can be costly.”
Getting It Right
Safety is paramount when redoing any airside surface, but so is efficiency. Construction crews at DCA worked six nights per week, coordinating closely with stakeholders. The project is currently paused for the winter months, but is slated to resume again in the spring of 2024.
Costing an estimated $110 million, the project is scheduled to take just over two years to complete. The airport’s shorter runway – 15/33 – remained open for one phase of the project, which allowed smaller aircraft to operate. As for airliners, 15/33 is on the shorter end of the runway spectrum at only 5,204 feet, therefore limiting larger aircraft.
Most travelers don’t think about the pavement that their aircraft is traversing, and that’s a good thing. Commonly known as a pavement management system, behind-the-scenes airport professionals do regular inspections of airfield surfaces to ensure they are safe, stable, and free of debris as stipulated by FAA regulations.
Since Runway 1/19 sees the majority of the airport’s traffic, regular upkeep continues to be important in avoiding any operational disruptions. “So the runways are taken care of very well,” Shah said. “So to do that, we do very rigorous regular inspections on the runway and there are some engineering thresholds.”
At DCA, the last major runway rehabilitation project was in 2011-2012. The airport did a so-called 3.5-inch mill and pave. This time around crews will replace base materials up to eight inches deep, which MWAA hopes will help with the runway’s long-term durability.
“We don’t have too many examples, or probably not any example, of doing this kind of work in this kind of time frame, so everything had to be thought out ahead of time,” Shah concluded.
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