AP NEWS

Airport, FAA officials continue to battle over runaway

May 16, 2019

SCOTTSBLUFF - Western Nebraska Regional Airport Director Raul Aguallo continues to fight to keep runway 5-23 open and its current width and length. At one point in time, it was thought to be a settled issue, but the Federal Aviation Administration continues to ask for justification of the need for runway 5-23.

“The feds are trying to get us to narrow and shorten it,” Aguallo said. “That’s not acceptable for the traffic we’re getting, especially with the contract with United.”

The airport continues to see an increase of diversionary flights and United Airlines is bringing in the last few pieces of equipment for a bigger increase. Then, they will start training on how to handle flights that are diverted into the airport. The diversionary staff will not be the regular airport staff.

The runway is a cross wind runway and is used at least 500 times a year by large aircraft as an alternative when cross winds prevent landing on the main runway. After finally being notified by the FAA that the runway was necessary to airport operations, plans were made to begin an $8 million project to resurface the runway. The cost has caused the FAA to question such a move even though a similar project was completed within the last three years in Alliance.

A cross-wind runway is a safety issue and western Nebraska is known for its winds.

In order to do what the FAA suggests, it would cost $15 million to cut the runway and narrow it. The lights, navigational aids and approaches would also need to be redone. To keep it the way it is and resurface it would cost $8 million. An NDOT pavement inspection was set to occur this week and Aguallo hopes they will see that 5-23 is in need of the repair Aguallo has asked for.

If the FAA forced the changes, larger planes would not be able to divert here, eliminating a revenue stream that continues to grow.

On April 26, Aguallo sat down with Congressman Adrian Smith to discuss his concerns about what the FAA is proposing.

“Adrian was responsive,” Aguallo said. “He is flying in and out of here a lot and understands the importance of the cross way.”

Aguallo also had a telephone conversation with U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer’s office.

“We expressed our concerns about runway 5-23,” Aguallo said. “Both are going to knock on the FAA door.”

After Smith spoke with the FAA and asked questions, a day or two later, the Nebraska Department of Transportation received a call about the bids to see what the problem is, Aguallo said.

“We think we stirred the pot a little bit and they’re thinking of us,” he said. “We’re going to keep fighting.”

Former Delta Air Lines executive Steve Dickson has been tapped as the new FAA chief and Fischer sits on the congressional committee that will be questioning. Fischer asked Aguallo for a couple of questions to ask of Dickson.

“She has other questions, but she will give a directed question about our airport,” Aguallo said.

Of concern to Fischer, Smith and Aguallo is whether or not Dickson will continue to support the Essential Air Service program, which Scottsbluff is a part. Aguallo said there are some with the current mindset that one size fits all for airports. This thinking can be detrimental to smaller airports. Runway 5-23 is a good example.

“They would never go to Denver and tell them they don’t need a crosswind (runway) because Denver doesn’t need funding,” Aguallo said. “They’re not going to like me when we’re done with this, but that’s OK.”

The federal Department of Transportation announced on Wednesday three Nebraska airports will be awarded supplemental discretionary grants. The grants will support improvements and rehabilitation of the airports’ runways. The airports are Gordon Municipal Airport (Gordon), $1.5 million, Red Cloud Municipal Airport (Red Cloud), $3.21 million and Thomas County Airport (Thedford), $4.365 million.