By Adina Solomon
For the past year, one of the two runways at Huntsville International Airport has remained quiet from the whirr of airplanes.
Later this summer, the runway on the west side of the Alabama airport will re-open, looking a little bigger.
It’s all to accommodate the Boeing 747-8.
“We’ll be completely open, runways, taxiways, everything,” Rick Tucker, executive director of Port of Huntsville, says. The Port of Huntsville includes the airport, which ranks No. 14 in the U.S. in international cargo.
Tucker says the US$28-million expansion of the west runway and its taxiway system began because of Panalpina, which operates a hub in Huntsville and flies to Europe, Mexico and Asia.
Since Panalpina is such an important partner of the airport, Huntsville has tried to upgrade over the years to match the freight forwarding company’s growth.
For instance, when Panalpina started using 747-400s, Huntsville expanded its runway to accommodate the size of the aircraft.“We’ve tried to handle or address any deficiencies in our airfield operations to accommodate the changes in that equipment as they’ve grown and expanded their operation,” Tucker says.
A few years ago, Panalpina decided to start flying the 747-8, an even bigger plane than the -400. Now, eight out of Panalpina’s nine weekly flights are serviced by 747-8s.
In order to address that change, Huntsville began a four-phase project to improve its two runways: first work on the west runway, the east runway, the west runway taxiway system and finally the east runway taxiway system.
First on the agenda was phases one and three, expanding the west runway and its parallel taxiway system, which the airport has worked on simultaneously for the past year.
“Our main goal was to shut down the runway only once,” Tucker says.
The construction project began when Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration started identifying airports around the U.S. that would be handling the 747-800, which is categorized as a group VI aircraft due to its size.
“Now that we’ve got these new group VI airplanes coming into the system, worldwide and in the U.S., what are going to be the new standards for your airfield based upon the requirements of these bigger airplanes?” Tucker says. “We looked at our entire airfield, west runway and east runway.”
Huntsville Airport got the money to start on phase one of the project, which was upgrading the west runway. It began phase three, the west runway taxiway system, after the Airport Improvement Program, a U.S. federal grant program, gave Huntsville additional discretionary money.
Tucker says the airfield layout of the airport allowed operations to continue smoothly with only one runway.
“We’re in a unique position where having a parallel system, 5,000-foot separation, it’s like having two airports in one,” he says.
Tucker explains that the upgraded runway will improve the level of safety at the airport, whose international air cargo operation services more than half of the U.S.
“Basically the eastern side of the United States, east of the Mississippi, is the area that’s serviced by these cargo operations and flights,” he says. “It’s very important to the industries that use these flights to keep production going, fill orders for their customers, all of those kinds of things.”
Now that the west side is almost completed, next is the east side.
The airport is working on the design of the east runway and its taxiway system, and in August, it hopes to take bids on those plans.
But Tucker seems doubtful that the airport will receive funds by the end of the FAA’s FY 2013 on Sept. 30. That’s why the airport looks to FY 2014 funds to pay for phase two of the project, which is the east runway.
It may take another year after that to get the money for the final phase, the east taxiway system.
This four-phase runway plan is only Huntsville’s latest construction project. In December 2012, the airport spent US$7 million to bring its number of 747 parking positions to 10.
“We’ve expanded our airfield and ramp facilities to accommodate growth in these international air cargo operations,” Tucker says, “so we’re set for the future to grow that operation.”