Saving cash, better communication top DOT aviation priorities

  • By ELWOOD BREHMER
  • Sunday, February 9, 2014 10:06pm
  • News

In-step with Gov. Sean Parnell’s message of fiscal restraint, Department of Transportation and Public Facilities Deputy Commissioner John Binder said the Statewide Aviation division is returning to its basic responsibilities.

“Along the line of the governor’s State of the State address (Jan. 25) is a focus a lot on our core competencies and our core mission — making sure we’re providing that rural access, fix and maintain the things we have and finishing everything we’ve started without a whole lot of emphasis on going out and looking for new projects,” Binder said.

After joining DOT in June 2013 as aviation operations manager, Binder took over for former deputy commissioner and head of state aviation Steve Hatter Jan. 7. He will address the Alaska Air Carriers Association Feb. 18 at its annual convention in Anchorage.

Winters with several freeze-thaw cycles, such as the one the state is experiencing now, strain localized airport operations budgets by forcing additional resources and money towards sanding, de-icing and surface maintenance, Binder said. The funds not used in winter typically go towards reconstruction and deferred maintenance after breakup and until the new fiscal year that begins each July 1.

In his fiscal year 2015 capital budget proposal, Parnell appropriates $209.5 million towards the state Airport Improvement Program. Of that, $170.9 million is project-specific funding from the Federal Aviation Administration. The current 2014 fiscal year budget has $217.8 million for airport projects, of which $206.1 is federal money.

While the proposed state contribution increased by $28.6 million year-over-year, the dollars going into state-run general aviation airports could fall by $8.3 million.

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and the Fairbanks International Airport — the Alaska International Airport System — have separate budgets.

There are several major airport rehabilitation and improvement projects across the state scheduled for the upcoming construction season in the effort to maintain existing infrastructure. Runway 7L-25R in Anchorage will enter a rehab project this spring that will last through 2015. That project is expected to cost $62.1 million, according to the DOT’s 2013 aviation report released last month. Phase two of the taxiway reconstruction at Anchorage will be an additional $9.5 million.

At Fairbanks, construction of the $21.9 million Airport Rescue and Firefighting Building — started in September 2013 — will continue into 2015.

Stage three of an $11.3 million expansion of the runway safety area at the Kotzebue Airport should be completed this year, the report states. Also in Northwest Alaska, a $15 million rehab and extension project of both runways at the Ambler Airport will commence when the weather allows.

Projects that began last year in Western Alaska will continue this year. Work totaling $27 million to expand the runway safety area and resurface the runway in Unalaska will resume; and a $30 million project to relocate the Tununak Airport will continue.

One of the things Binder has seen improve in his short time with the department is its exchange with the aviation industry and operators at small airports, he said.

“We’ve really worked hard in the last year to reinvigorate our communications with the air carriers, primarily because they’re the ones that are seeing the conditions of our airports on a daily basis,” Binder said.

The pilots flying in and out of small airports across the state are often the “first line of defense,” he said, against potential hazards such as uneven runway pavement, washed out gravel and missing lights, that might otherwise go unnoticed.

“All the carriers now — and we update it regularly — all have key points of contact for every airport out there with alternates and backups,” to relay safety concerns, Binder said.

If the contacts cannot be reached, carriers are encouraged to contact the regional DOT directors, he said.

Alaska Airports Association Executive Director Jane Dale said she would still like to see quicker response and issuance of Notices to Airmen, or NOTAMs, at smaller airports, but that the department’s efforts are noticeable.

“Communication with Binder as well as (former deputy commissioner) Hatter is greatly improved,” Dale said.

DOT is in the midst of an eight-month process to develop an airport needs directory in conjunction with the Alaska Air Carriers Association, according to Binder. The directory will be a record of all the infrastructure maintenance and improvement needs at every airport in the state, he said, and represent billions of dollars worth of work. Binder referred to it as a “wish list” of projects over the next 20 years.

Part of improving rural airport maintenance will include continuing operator training with heavy equipment at the Pipeline Training Center in Fairbanks, Binder said.

Numerous village airports are run by groups contracted with DOT to maintain the facilities.

Last year the department trained contractors from 14 rural airports on lighting system maintenance, equipment operation and maintenance and safety procedures in two courses. The training was funded through a Denali Commission grant. Binder said plans are to have three more courses in 2014.

Training the contractors saves significant resources, department officials have said, by eliminating the need to send individuals out to remote locations for issues the contractors can now resolve.

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