An industry-education partnership begins work on a new runway

By Edward A. Johnson, Executive Director, Piedmont Triad Int’l Airport

October 2001

About the Author

Edward A. "Ted" Johnson has served as the executive director of the Piedmont Triad International Airport in Greensboro, NC, since 1993. He is a graduate of Duke University with a B.S. in Civil Engineering, and is past-president of the North Carolina Airports Association and currently serves on its board. He can be reached at (336) 665-5600 or e-mail to

It’s not often that an airport project combines first-rate research, educational opportunities for graduate students in engineering, sophisticated technology and a community partnership that includes an engineering firm and a local state university. But at Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTI), we’ve managed to pull just such a project together, all in an effort to build a better runway.

We’re particularly interested in runway technology here at the Triad airport, which serves the greater Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and High Point region of North Carolina, because we are about to embark on a major construction project. FedEx has selected our airport for its mid-Atlantic hub, scheduled to open in 2005.
The $300 million hub will anchor FedEx’s East Coast operations, eventually employing 1,500 people and processing 104,000 packages each day. As part of the project, the airport will build a 9,000-foot runway parallel to its existing main runway.
The runway and hub plan is working its way through the Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental impact process; we won’t have final word on the project until later this year. But we want to be ready to start construction once the FAA has given its final approval.

The Players
That’s why we have teamed up with the North Carolina A&T State University College of Engineering, the Federal Aviation Administration Center of Excellence for Airport Pavement Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), and Trigon Engineering, a local engineering firm that has done a good bit of work for the airport.
It’s a winning combination. North Carolina A&T State University (NC A&T) in Greensboro is a nationally recognized institution that is a top producer of African-American engineers in the country. The FAA Center at the University of Illinois is on the cutting edge of pavement technology and our airport is on the verge of becoming a major player in cargo distribution.
Together, we are developing plans for the proposed new parallel runway at PTI.

Program Genesis
The collaboration began as the idea of Dick Wells, P.E., president of Trigon. He has a long-standing relationship with the Department of Civil Engineering at NC A&T and serves on the Department’s Advisory Board. PTI has worked with Trigon for many years, so when he proposed a project with NC A&T, I was eager to listen.
I met with Wells and Dr. Reza Salami, PE, associate dean for graduate and research programs in the NC A&T College of Engineering, to develop the program. During the process, I had the chance to visit the FAA Center of Excellence at the University of Illinois and was highly impressed with their facilities, vast experience, and their ideas about working on the FedEx project.

An Experience
The first part of the collaboration was the opportunity for five NC A&T graduate students to gain hands-on experience during a 12-week education and work program at UIUC. The students spent the summer in Illinois expanding their knowledge of runway design and construction and researching material compositions that can be used on the new runway at PTI.
While in Illinois, the students visited the FedEx hub at Indianapolis Int’l and attended the American Society of Civil Engineers Airport Pavement Conference in Chicago.
Working with UIUC and Wells, the students tested local soil and aggregates to determine how to build a runway that will last longer, require less maintenance, and ultimately be more cost-effective.
The new runway, critical to FedEx’s time-sensitive operations, must be engineered to withstand the planned air traffic and the climate of the area.
Now that the students have returned to North Carolina, they (along with their professors and Wells) are finalizing their research. We look forward to reviewing their work.
But the collaboration doesn’t stop there. During the construction process, students and faculty of NC A&T may monitor and test the material performance. Once the runway is in use, they may continue to analyze its performance with their state-of-the-art equipment.
We’re excited about the work that the students are doing and believe that the partnership will benefit everyone involved. The airport gets state-of-the-art runway technology. The students receive unbeatable real-world experience, and both NC A&T State University and the airport gain from the strong ties that are being built between the University and PTI.
What’s more, the airport can look forward to reaping the benefits of having access to NC A&T’s knowledge and technology, and university faculty and students have a new laboratory where they are able to apply their knowledge to practical situations.
The program is truly a win-win for everyone involved.