FAA: Shorter Runway for Green in RI Won't Fly

The Federal Aviation Administration's consultant said yesterday that runway lengths shorter than 9,350 feet will not meet the T.F. Green Airport's future needs, and that without a longer runway the Warwick airport will lose passengers and routes to competitors.

The FAA is in the process of studying the environmental impact of lengthening the main runway at Green from its current 7,166 feet to allow for nonstop flights from coast to coast. The FAA recently unveiled five options for extending the runway to 9,350 feet, with varying impacts on wetlands, the relocation of roads, and the need to move homes.

In an effort to lessen the impacts, Governor Carcieri and Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian both requested in April that the FAA study runways shorter than the 9,350-foot model it is currently considering. The FAA's consultant, Vanasse Hangen Brustlin LLC, in Massachusetts, spent several months studying scenarios for shorter runways. It studied five options ranging from 8,100 feet to 9,000 feet.

It determined that at runways shorter than 9,350, FAA weight penalties governing takeoffs would force airlines to embargo seats and run their planes at less than capacity, VHB representatives reported yesterday in Providence to state and federal agencies.

A 9,000-foot runway would mean 14,082 fewer passengers per year by 2,012, versus projections for a 9,350 foot runway. An 8,100-foot runway would mean a loss of 99,840 passengers annually by 2012. The airport serves roughly 5.5 million passengers annually.

But the damage would be more significant than just that passenger loss, said VHB's Peter Byrne. The airlines would shift routes to use airports where they could operate with more efficiency and fill their aircraft.

"Airlines are beginning to realize that they cannot make a profit by only operating at 75 percent of capacity," Byrne said.

The mayor said he was dissatisfied with both the methodology and the results of the study.

In determining runway length, the study tests various airplanes in use at Green and the runway length they would need to travel non-stop, coast-to-coast. The most demanding among these would be labeled the "critical design aircraft" and would be the baseline for any study.

FAA regulations require that for the purposes of a study, the "individual aircraft requiring the longest runway length at maximum takeoff weight is the most critical design aircraft and the aircraft used to establish the recommended runway length."

In this case, that aircraft is the 767-300.

Avedisian said that including the 767-300 as a "critical design aircraft" in the study is too constraining. The 767-300 is in far too limited use at the airport -- 7 percent of the fleet at Green today -- to base such an important study around.

"So they're now suggesting that we construct a runway extension to serve only 7 percent of the total fleet mix," Avedisian said. "That's a tradeoff that we think is ridiculous."

"Their whole analysis is picking the biggest development plan possible and going with that," Avedisian said. "Anything that reduced that they laughed at and said we'd lose passengers."

Avedisian said he would meet with the governor next week to discuss the FAA study.

The FAA's John Silva, who is in charge of the environmental impact study, said that this does not preclude the agency from some day building a runway shorter than 9,350 feet -- especially if it's determined that the effects on the environment are severe.

But for now, the shorter runways are out of the study.

"I don't know that we're saying no. We have done that and determined that it does not meet the purpose and need," Silva said. "It's not in the mix right now. It could be that a shorter runway could be a major factor going forward."

The FAA will next evaluate the environmental consequences of the runway alternatives, and what can be done to mitigate the impacts. That study should be complete by the spring of 2007. The agency will settle on the preferred alternative by the summer of 2007.

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