Keeping a Regionally Vital Airport in Service During a Runway Reconstruction

Challenge

The runway at the Falls International Airport in International Falls was 40 years old and nearing the end of its service life. The runway had deteriorated to the point of needing complete reconstruction. The International Falls-Koochiching County Airport Commission recognized the need to replace the existing runway while minimizing the impact it would have on the region’s sole commercial service runway.

Falls International Airport is the only commercial service airport in this northern Minnesota region. As a result, the airport serves the area’s summer tourist industry which is critical to the local economy. The airport serves more than 34,000 passengers every year and is an international port of entry serving over 100 international flights per month in the summer among other general aviation flights. As a result, the project had to be completed under a tight deadline. In response, the Airport Commission sought the expertise of SEH to lead its reconstruction efforts.

Solution

To address the condition of the runway, the Airport Commission completed an extensive, fast-paced triggering event master plan (TEMP) ahead of any runway design effort. There were four primary goals of the TEMP:

  1. Assess the current condition of the runway and taxiway environment.
  2. Develop a phasing strategy to minimize impacts on commercial service operations.
  3. Develop a critical funding strategy to leverage Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and other funding sources.
  4. Complete key stakeholder engagement and communication ahead of the project.

This planning project set the stage for a needed multi-year infrastructure renewal project. Following is more in-depth look at what the TEMP included.

1. Assess the current conditions and needs of the runway and taxiway system
The SEH project team evaluated the condition of the existing pavement and lighting systems. The team also evaluated how the runway and taxiway met design standards and where improvements should be made as part of each phase of the project. Activity forecasts were completed to determine the existing and future critical aircraft activity. This provided the needed justification for the runway and taxiway pavement including the addition of paved taxiway shoulders and lighting. Improvements to taxiway geometry were also identified which improve pilot situational awareness and improve safety.  

2. Develop a phasing strategy
Within six months of initiating the TEMP, the project team had identified and evaluated critical facility needs including: funding eligibility, seasonal airport use, as well as weather and other considerations. The team developed numerous alternatives for reconstructing the pavements. The alternatives included various construction phasing and timing options as well as concrete and bituminous pavement. One critical success factor for the TEMP was a collaborative approach amongst the airport planning and engineering team by paralleling planning and critical preliminary engineering elements. By partnering planning and engineering, the team was able to quickly identify and evaluate alternatives.

After extensive coordination with essential stakeholders, including the FAA Airport District Office and Great Lakes Region and SkyWest Airlines, a four phased reconstruction approach was developed. The unique phasing approach used the reconstructed and widened parallel taxiway as a runway during the reconstruction of the center section. Because of this phasing approach, the airport never closed and remained in service throughout the project. Tourists and other visitors were able to fly in throughout the critical summer months, and there was zero negative impact on the local economy.

3. Develop a critical funding strategy
Completing the TEMP in less than nine months allowed the team to take advantage of a more than $50 million capital improvement plan. The TEMP provided key justification for funding decisions at all levels of government.

  • It allowed the FAA to include all four phases on the discretionary candidate list, lining the project up for funding and helping provide a framework for project completion.
  • It provided project justification for the airport’s grant application from the federal appropriation of $1 billion in supplemental airport funding.  The airport was successfully awarded $14 million in supplemental funding for Phase 3.
  • The State of Minnesota, including MnDOT Aeronautics provided key project financial support to assist the local community.
  • It communicated necessary project justification for community leaders to work with state legislators putting the airport in the best position for additional funding.

4. Key stakeholder engagement
One defining characteristic highlighting the success of the TEMP was meaningful stakeholder engagement. Local businesses that routinely use the airport, such as Packaging Corporation of American and other airport users and tenants were consulted to determine adverse effects of closing the airport for up to three months during construction of the critical center runway section. In order to document the impact on commercial service travelers, a survey effort was initiated as part of a project information station on both the secure and non-secure side of the terminal. This information helped document the need for additional project costs to maintain air service during construction. Documenting these concerns and communicating project alternatives led the team to select the least impactful construction phasing.

The decision also garnered the full support of the FAA and MnDOT Aeronautics. In July 2018, the project team and all available airport stakeholders completed a safety risk management (SRM) meeting to assess the risks, weigh alternatives and provide safety mitigation strategies for the next four years of construction.

The SEH team also created unique construction safety and phasing plans that were easier to understand than complex and potentially intimidating engineering drawings. An open house was held in International Falls to communicate the project phases, associated costs, impacts and other vitally important details. Successful stakeholder engagement for the airport and community remains an ongoing effort.

Related Content: Falls International Airport Terminal Design Optimizes Growth, Safety and Sustainability

Project
Falls International Airport Triggering Event Master Plan

Location
City of International Falls, Minnesota

Client
International Falls-Koochiching County Airport Commission

Features

  • Runway condition assessment
  • Activity forecasts
  • Taxiway geometry assessment
  • Reconstruction phasing
  • Funding strategy
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Runway reconstruction
  • Safety risk management

Services

  • Airport planning and design
  • Civil engineering
  • Construction services
  • Mechanical and electrical engineering
  • Natural resources scientists
  • Survey

Awards

  • Outstanding Leadership in Airport Planning, Environment and Strategic Initiative Award | Minnesota Council of Airports