January 22, 2012 By Kurt Madar
FARMINGTON – Farmington’s airport is not big, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in importance to the area.
Four Corners Regional Airport is one of only three primary commercial service airports in the state. The other two are Albuquerque’s Sunport and the Santa Fe Municipal Airport.
City officials long have recognized the airport’s importance, and high on their capital improvement wish list is making it possible for bigger planes to use the facility.
A major obstacle is the length of the airport’s runways. For years, city officials and local business leaders have talked about how to make them longer. But the airport is built on a mesa, which severely limits the space.
All that may be about to change. A company that specializes in airport surveys has come up with a plan that is remarkably different than anything proposed before.
If a committee of local officials and airport users has its way, it may become a master plan for how the airport will be developed.
They are creating that master plan with the goal being to predict and prepare for projected use patterns over the next 20 years.
As part of that process, WH Pacific, the consulting firm tasked with developing the master plan, presented four options for public comment.
“Four Corners Regional Airport is very important for the region,” said Wendy Renier, senior airport planner for WH Pacific. “It’s had the primary commercial service designation for many years.”
That importance is growing. In the last year, Four Corners has seen a 20 percent increase in the number of passengers. The airport also has seen an increase in business jet traffic.
Despite the demonstrated need, some audience members at a Tuesday meeting felt any changes to Four Corners would be a waste of resources.
“Have you considered a new airport out someplace flat?” asked Joe Ward, who lives just to the west. “That mesa is finite in size and making runways longer is just ridiculous. Why truck in thousands of tons of fill when it could be moved someplace flat and truly become a regional airport?”
Renier agreed that moving the airport was an option, but stressed that WH Pacific was hired to consider the existing site.
“What we were tasked with was how the existing site can be developed to be safe, efficient and compatible with the view of the community,” Renier told the audience. “The travel of larger corporate jets is growing, which is good for economics, but emphasizes the restrictions created by the current infrastructure.”
Four Corners is classified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a BII airport. The designation refers to the approach speed and the wing span of the airplanes the airport can safely support.
A BII designation means the airport is closed to most jets, especially during hot summer months when low air density requires longer runway lengths.
According to use projections, the airport is forecast to go to a CII designation, which means something must be done to increase runway length.
“The city communicated that their vision was to start accommodating regional jets,” Renier said. “Regional jets require a CII classification.”
Tuesday’s presentation was limited to the airside, or runway, of airport operations.
Options ranged from no change at all to increasing runway size to a CIII classification, which would allow Boeing 737s to use the facility.
According to Renier, it would be possible to upgrade the airport to allow for regional jet use without significantly changing the length or orientation of the runways.
“The third alternative would accommodate a greater mix of business jets and would not require runway extensions,” Renier said. “To allow for regional jets without lengthening runways, it would be necessary to put in EMAS.”
EMAS stands for Engineered Material Arresting System, which acts like a run away truck ramp. This is where WH Pacific’s proposals start to get creative. In the past, the city considered lengthening runway 25 to allow for regional jet travel, something that came with a hefty price tag.
It also had residents to the east and west of the airport worried about the future of their property.
“They said extending runway 25 would take 2.6 million pounds of fill, which would put a 200-foot pile of dirt right next to my house,” said Jess Markle, who lives to the southwest of the airport.
With WH Pacific’s EMAS proposal, the amount of fill material would be substantially less, and the residences to the west and east of the airport wouldn’t be affected.
However, the Planning Action Committee, consisting of business leaders, local officials and airport users that are helping guide the process, threw their weight behind the final option.
The final proposal was the only one of the four that increased runway length, but it managed the increase without significantly affecting residences close to the airport.
“The question we asked was how do you use the spot where you are now to best accommodate regional jets,” Renier said. “This idea takes the city’s communication to us, about truly being a regional airport with jets, and makes it possible.”
WH Pacific’s fourth proposal closes Four Corner’s primary runway and builds a 10,000-foot runway with a north-to-south orientation. Existing runways run east to west.
“This is obviously the biggest and most costly change,” Renier said. “It is also a completely new concept.”
And there are still questions that need to be answered.
The most important, in a time of tightened purse strings, is where the funding for such a large project would come from. Officials hope, once the master plan is completed and submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration, that it will identify enough of a need that federal funding will be available.
“They fund projects of this size for other airports,” said Airport Manager Ben Trujillo. “Why not here?”
Another potential issue involves the mesa where the airport is built. It continues north all the way to Pi – on Hills Boulevard and has enough room for the new runway, but there is a set of bluffs on the far side of Pi – on Hills that could be a problem.
The Federal Aviation Administration has a set of guidelines for keeping flight paths clear of obstacles, and if the bluffs extend too far into the air, they potentially could interfere.
“These are conceptual plans,” Renier said. “We won’t have all the planning work completed until we know what direction the city wants to go.”
Because the master plan process is far from finished, it may be a while before a direction is finalized.
“For the next part of the process, we will take the recommendation of the Planning Action Committee to the city’s Airport Advisory Commission,” Trujillo said. “They will then make their recommendation to the City Council.”
At that point, the Council will decide which of the four options it wants to adopt as the airport’s master plan, and WH Pacific will provide a more detailed version.