Residents of Delaware and Delaware County worried about runway expansion plans at Philadelphia International Airport can thank birds in the Heinz National Wildlife Refuge for prompting changes in what's under study to try to reduce flight delays.
Managers of the city-owned airport and the Federal Aviation Administration said yesterday that their long-range study of ways to reduce delays is focused on plans to realign the airport's long east-west runways that are parallel to the Delaware River, and build a new landing strip along the river's northern bank.
No longer under consideration are ideas the airport first floated in a master plan more than four years ago that troubled many residents of Delaware County. Those ideas would have turned the runways at a 45-degree angle, aligning them to the northeast, so that more takeoffs and landings would take place over the Heinz refuge in Tinicum Township, the officials said.
Susan McDonald, an FAA environmental protection specialist who is leading the agency's study of the master plan, said in a briefing at the airport's FAA control tower that the birds in the Heinz refuge could create a safety hazard if airplanes taking off were to hit them. Airports, including Philadelphia's, often have to devise ways to scare birds away from runways to avoid the hazard they pose to planes, but that can't be done in a national refuge, McDonald said.
The runway realignment project is at least a decade away from completion. Airport officials estimated the work would cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion and could involve replacing some of the airport's terminal buildings and the UPS sorting facility in the airport's southwest corner. In the meantime, the airport is planning to extend one shorter north-south runway as another way to reduce delays.
Dozens of other ideas to realign the runways to help speed up air traffic also have been eliminated because they could require relocating portions of Interstate 95 or because they could disrupt shipping traffic on the Delaware, the FAA officials said.
The FAA and the airport will reveal more details about their environmental impact study, which is scheduled for completion in December 2007, in a series of public meetings across the region in late September.
City Aviation Director Charles J. Isdell said Philadelphia International, with just 2,300 acres, is one of the nation's most compact airports, limiting how it can expand. At the same time, the launch of service by Southwest Airlines last year pushed up passenger traffic and flights to record levels after other airlines matched Southwest's low fares. Since 1996, Philadelphia has moved from being the nation's 24th-busiest airport to being No. 17.
"This should be good news, moving up the ranks," Isdell said. "But the downside is delays."
The airport was in fourth place in 2004 for the most delays at the nation's 33 busiest airports.
The Federal Aviation Administration will conduct five public meetings on the airport runway project, all from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Sept. 21, Brandywine High School, 1400 Foulk Rd., Wilmington.
Sept. 22, Ridley Community Center auditorium, 801 Morton Ave., Folsom.
Sept. 27, Paulsboro High School auditorium, 670 N. Delaware St., Paulsboro.
Sept. 28, Tinicum School gymnasium, 91 Seneca St., Essington.
Sept. 29, Eastwick at the Meadows, 6630 Lindbergh Blvd., Philadelphia.