Over the last half-century, airports around the world have undertaken massive expansion projects to better accommodate the travelling civilian population and an evolving aircraft fleet mix.
Unfortunately, in my opinion, the runway safety areas at a number of these airports have not kept pace and, as a result, a number of gateways in the US face a battle to enhance their airfields as they bid to find a balancing act between their operational requirements and protecting the environment.
For coastal airports that do not have the land available to extend their runway safety areas, the only option is to build land in water.
This means filling portions of rivers, bays or estuaries, which result in unavoidable impacts to wetlands, marshes, aquatic preserves, seagrasses, oyster beds and habitats for fish, manatees and other protected species.
State and federal laws protect these waters, and advocacy from public and private interest groups help limit human intrusion, but the challenge arises for airport planners who must weigh natural resource conservancy against safe and sustainable airport growth.
One such airport that faced this challenge was Merritt Island Airport in Brevard County, Florida, which had to ensure that both safety and environmental protection was a top priority during a recent runway safety area improvements project.
The airport runway sits on a peninsula surrounded by the Banana River Aquatic Preserve and there clearly was a safety issue there as between 1988 and 2014, the FAA recorded 34 incidents involving airplanes rolling off the runway – and some into the river – resulting in aircraft damage and minor injuries.
To help reduce these incidents, the proposed project called for stabilising the eroding shoreline and filling in part of the river as a means to extend the runway safety area to comply with appropriate FAA design guidelines and safety requirements.
As Michael Powell, chief executive officer of Titusville Cocoa Airport Authority, explained: “Airports – especially those embedded into a natural environment or shoreline – must be cognisant of the negative impact that improvements can have on the natural surroundings.
“Due to the unique positioning of our runway, as we embarked on this project, we were dually aware that it must not only aid in passenger safety, but also have limited negative impact on the environment.”
As an airport environmental steward that also actively promotes safety, Michael Baker International’s goal was to design a project that would not only mitigate the unavoidable environmental impacts but also help improve the ailing river.
The project included a shoreline stabilisation design to stop erosion and sediment deposition into the river – effectively improving water quality.
To further help with natural resource conservation, a seagrass platform was built by filling a hole in the river near the airport, and a 25-acre mosquito impoundment wetland mitigation island was purchased and enhanced by connecting it to the river and installing native plant life.
Construction of the runway safety area also minimised the likelihood of an airplane crash and potential fuel spills into the river.
Overall, this type of project is a testament to how airports are working to be good environmental stewards, balancing sustainable growth while protecting the environment.
Striking this balance often poses challenges for airport planners as the factors beyond one’s control can impede the process, including general public scrutiny, regulatory processing that may extend project schedules beyond federal grant allocation and costly complex mitigation.
However, in some instances, based on the surrounding area, environmental protection is weighted significantly higher than airport growth unless technological solutions can be implemented.
Specifically in these cases, conducting a feasibility study is essential to determine if the airport expansion project is feasible, permittable, constructible and socially acceptable. In doing so, airports can more effectively manage and communicate social and fiscal expectations.
When developing an airport expansion plan, failure to achieve harmony between passenger safety and natural resource conservancy can have detrimental effects ranging from inflated costs to litigation to negative public perception.
At airports in need of these types of improvements, it is essential that planners wisely proceed with a well-informed plan that equally considers safety and environmental resources to ensure land is properly preserved and both lives and property are protected.