Glacier Airport Schedules Runway Closures for August 2009

By Beacon Staff

The main runway of Glacier Park International Airport will be closed for 12 days throughout August of next year to allow for resurfacing and improvements, necessitating substantial rescheduling of flights in and out of the Flathead during one of the peak periods of the summer tourism season.

The closures won’t happen all at once, but will occur over four “rolling closures” from 10 p.m. on Mondays through 9 a.m. on Fridays during August of 2009. The airport will be increasing its flight service on the remaining days of those weeks, which have the most air traffic, Airport Director Cindi Martin said.

The commercial carriers providing service to Glacier Airport – Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Horizon Air – have already changed their schedules, but have not yet determined whether to offer more flights on the days the runway is operating, or possibly use larger planes to increase passenger capacity, she added. Allegiant Air, which recently announced service to Las Vegas from Kalispell, only flies Fridays and Mondays currently, so it is unlikely to be affected by the closures in the middle of the week.

Smaller general aviation planes that use the “crosswind” runway, which lays perpendicular to the main runway, will also not be affected during the August closures, except for a day or two when the intersection of the runways requires resurfacing. Helicopters, air ambulances, medical and cargo flights should also be able to operate normally during the resurfacing closures, Airport Deputy Director Robert Ratkowski said.

The airport officials acknowledged last week that the runway closures will happen during a season that could potentially cause some headaches for summer travelers, but between the timing of the federal funding for the estimated $7.2-million project and the need for warm weather during runway paving, a narrow window exists in which to do the work.

“We know it’s the worst time, but it’s the only time because of the constraints we have to work in,” Martin said.

Resurfacing Glacier’s runway is the Federal Aviation Administration’s highest priority airport improvement project in the state, Martin said, but the federal discretionary funding – responsible for 95 percent of the project – won’t be issued until June of next year and improvements that don’t require runway closures are scheduled to begin mid-July. That leaves the airport until the end of August to pave the main runway before wetter, colder weather arrives in autumn.

“Once we close, the operation will go 24 hours a day,” Martin said.

She is already budgeting for less income for the second half of 2009 as a result of the reduced flights.

If the repaving work isn’t completed according to schedule, Martin added, the carriers could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in missed flights.

Rental car companies, the grill and gift shop at the airport are also likely to see a slowdown in business – though Martin expects many of those tenants will use the downtime to do renovations or make improvements to their businesses. The Transportation Security Administration is planning for lighter staffing, but no airport employees will lose their jobs as a result of the closures.

The resurfacing is necessitated by the premature degradation of the main runway, which was laid down in 1991 out of a material called “porous friction course,” intended to provide traction while allowing water to drain off. But the freeze-and-thaw cycle of Montana’s climate is preventing the surface from functioning properly. A thousand feet of the main runway’s roughly 9,000-foot length has already been resurfaced. While the runway is “completely safe,” Martin said, by the end of next year the remaining 8,000 feet will need to be repaved with standard runway asphalt with grooving.

“We’re going to get rid of a pavement surface that isn’t functioning as designed,” she added. “It’s crumbling, it’s unraveling at the threads; it’s just not good for airplanes.”

Airport crews are also going to be improving the runway lighting, and replacing signage and wiring, as well as installing the beginning of a sensor system to more accurately report weather on the runway.

The project has been under consideration for about a year, with airport officials weighing several options as to how to conduct the work without infringing too heavily on air traffic. Shutting down the entire runway for a few days a week is also safer, Martin said, than shutting down parts of the runway while planes landed on shorter sections, especially considering the airport in Missoula carried out a similar project last year successfully by employing rolling closures.

“We’re very fortunate that we don’t have to do a total shutdown,” Martin said. “This is kind of a best case, given the circumstances.”

Updated information on Glacier Airport’s August 2009 closures is available at www.iflyglacier.com.