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Expensive Bricks for the Airport: AVweb

Discussion in 'Airport News, Talk & Discussion' started by Lord Leighton, Mar 21, 2016.

  1. Lord Leighton

    Lord Leighton Hangar Gold Member I

    Apr 29, 2013
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    United States United States
    Expensive Bricks For The Airport
    I was browsing the local paper this week and noticed a letter from a resident calling out my local airport at Venice for having installed a very expensive EMAS runway overrun system. You're familiar with these, I'm sure. EMAS is engineered material arresting system and in this context, it refers to sophisticated foam concrete blocks that crush and absorb the careening energy of an overrunning aircraft without collapsing the landing gear and/or causing significant damage to the airplane. I'm sure you've also seen the photos of airplanes up to their wheel hubs in this system after an overrun.

    The downside is that the technology is very expensive. Like $1300 for each 4 x 4 block, of which there are 2560 in the Venice installation. It's about $100 per square foot. The letter writer asked, quite legitimately, I thought, why are we paying $4 million for this system when the national interstate system gets by using engineered soil and gravel for runaway truck stops in mountainous areas?

    Good question. Part of the answer is that trucks distribute their weight over many more wheels and can thus tolerate the more rapid deceleration than gravel provides. One goal of EMAS is to prevent the airplane from degrading structurally, thus protecting passengers and preventing fire. Tests show that EMAS is good at this so it's a proven safety enhancer.

    But would engineered gravel be just as good and a hell of a lot cheaper? Another good question. I couldn't find much on it. This report (PDF) found that gravel worked well, but spray from the arrestment could FOD turbine engines. This report (PDF) discusses the issue of EMAS compared to soil and gravel beds—the truckstop solution. It found that EMAS has performed as advertised, but the data on the gravel and soil is indeterminate. Do tell. I wonder if that's because when the FAA was researching runway overrun technology, EMAS was the sexy, new high-tech thing and gravel beds were just for lowly, stinky trucks.

    Then, of course, the First Law of Aviation kicks in. If a simple, cost-effective solution to any problem appears, find one that costs five times as much and takes 16 times longer to approve. Where possible, that solution should be manufactured by only one vendor so competition won't lower prices. (Actually, two companies make EMAS systems.) And EMAS really has a big airport tilt to it, not a muni airport tilt. Of course, for the gravel/soil to work, you'd have to figure out how to keep it in place against jet blast, wind and weather, but then the EMAS systems require lots of maintenance, too, especially recaulking to keep water out of them. That's a real challenge in Florida. All of this would require actual testing and research.

    I also can't help but wonder if the FAA writes standards that all but specify such systems in performance requirements. It's no accident that Venice wound up with an EMAS system because it's part of a project to provide a runway safety zone for a small group of houses off the end of one runway. The runway was moved to achieve this and the FAA specified EMAS and paid for 90 percent of the total $9.2 million runway project under AIP. It's a good deal for the city, despite the EMAS costing nearly half of the total. It gives the houses some deserved protection, too. To be sure, EMAS installations at small munis are rare; there are only about a half dozen. Most are at major airline or regional hubs.

    Still, pilots flying into the airport will appreciate the additional safety the system offers, especially jets arriving in the monsoonal downpours common here. They may be less appreciative when they step out of the airplane after an actual overrun, however. Or graze the thing because of an undershoot. Those of us with hangars and driving privileges were surprised to receive a notice earlier this month advising us not to drive or walk on the EMAS and if we damage it in any way, we'll be liable to pay for it or be excluded from the airport. It required a signed waiver. I hadn't planned on getting near this vaunted patch of technology, but I had to sign in blood affirming same.

    But the same arrangement applies to anyone who uses the EMAS in anger. So you can imagine that a real overrun—not to mention the recovery of the airplane—will chew up maybe a quarter of those blocks. With labor, the aircraft owner or the insurer will be on the hook for a million-dollar repair bill. This is a textbook example of safety at any cost. But I'm wondering if those jet drivers shouldn't be required to make a credit card deposit before being cleared for the approach, just to be "safe." Or better, have the cost of it covered by the government's duty to provide infrastructure. Novel idea, I know. Read on.

    User Fees by Another Name
    One encouraging development this week (PDF) was an amendment to the current FAA reauthorization bill to require the FAA to provide and pay for air traffic services at the major airshows. And bully for that! I've felt from day one that the FAA's decision to charge AirVenture and Sun 'n Fun was nothing but a legal shakedown and just an under-the-radar user fee. (So is the EMAS situation I described above.)

    Personally, I'd mind it less if the shows had the option of easily bringing in their own contractors to provide the same service better and cheaper than the FAA can. For various reasons related to insurance and unreasonable FAA requirements, this has never been possible.

    The more I hear politicians like Rep. Bill Shuster (Shyster) try to sell the disastrous idea of a private corporation for ATC funded by user fees, the more hardover I become against it. User fees are nothing but distorted taxation and a chickens&^t way for politicians to pay for things when they lack the courage to levy fair taxes on all citizens, not just those using specific services. By that standard, you'd probably guess I'm against user fees on the Intracoastal Waterway, even though I don't own a boat. And you'd be right, too.
    Drjohn and Everett 757 like this.

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