Time could be short for Lincoln Airport’s long runway | Local Business News

The main runway at the Lincoln Airport is almost 13,000 feet long, making it one of the longest runways at any commercial airport in the U.S.

The nearly 2½-mile-long strip of concrete and asphalt is a relic from the airport’s past as an Air Force base that was home to B-47 bombers in the 1950s and ’60s.

While commercial airlines and private planes don’t need a runway anywhere near that long, its length has always been a feather in the cap of the airport and, by extension, the city itself.

The long runway gave Lincoln status at one time as an emergency landing site for the space shuttle. It also can handle jumbo jets that need to be diverted because of weather or in-flight emergencies.

And it occasionally plays host to giant cargo planes, such as the Russian Antonov AH-124 that landed here last fall to deliver a 220,000-pound boiler to a plant near Sioux City, Iowa.

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The runway length also has allowed Offutt Air Force Base to station planes at the airport several times over the years during projects, including the current $150 million reconstruction of its runway.

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But days could be numbered for Lincoln’s ultra-long runway.

As part of a 10-year master planning process, airport officials have determined that the runway, which has been rehabbed several times but never reconstructed, needs to be completely rebuilt.

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And that potentially presents a problem. The Federal Aviation Administration, which pays for 90% of most airport-related capital projects, will only pay to reconstruct a runway long enough and wide enough to accommodate so-called “critical” aircraft — defined as those that have a minimum of 500 operations annually. And it only includes civilian flights in those calculations.

“The best way to look at it is the FAA is a civilian agency, and so when they look at it, they want to see what is the civilian usage of your airport,” said Chad Lay, the airport’s director of planning and development.

At the Lincoln Airport, the largest civilian planes that fly on a regular basis are the regional jets that United Airlines uses for flights to Chicago, Denver and — starting in September — Houston.

Lay said that under those parameters, his best guess is that the FAA would be willing to pay for a runway that’s somewhere between 60% and 80% of its current length, which would put it in the range of 8,000-10,000 feet.

That would be plenty long enough for the United planes that fly out of the airport daily, but it’s unclear whether it would suffice for some other flights.

Larger planes occasionally use the airport, including charter flights that take University of Nebraska athletes to competitions and bring their competitors to Lincoln. A 10,000-foot runway would likely accommodate those flights. An 8,000-foot runway might not, depending on the size of the planes.

What might help save the long runway is the fact the airport is home to the Nebraska Air National Guard’s 155th Air Refueling Wing, with its fleet of eight Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers, which are very large planes that need a longer-than-normal runway.

The Air National Guard said the runway’s current dimensions are vital and the Guard’s commander said he thinks it’s highly unlikely it will be shortened due to its strategic value.

Col. John D. Williams, commander of the 155th Air Refueling Wing, said program managers from the National Guard Bureau have tentatively reached an agreement to fund the planning process to cover the military’s share of the runway project.

He said the discussion hasn’t been about shortening the runway, but rather determining the appropriate cost share between the military and the FAA.

David Haring, the airport’s executive director, acknowledged that because it’s still so early in the planning process, “there’s sort of a lot of question marks going forward on this.”

One is the cost. Depending on a number of factors, including how long the runway ultimately is and what construction costs do over the next couple of years, the airport has estimated the reconstruction project would cost anywhere from $30 million-$80 million. For whatever portion the FAA decides to pay for, the airport’s cost would be 10% of the total amount.

Another question mark is timing. Lay estimated that a runway reconstruction project wouldn’t occur for at least a couple of years, and it’s possible the airport could attract more commercial flights on larger airplanes, which could spur the FAA to pay for a longer runway.

The FAA said in a statement that it is working with the airport to analyze what its critical aircraft are to determine what it would be willing to pay for.

If the FAA won’t pay for a runway long enough for the National Guard planes, there is precedent for the military to step in and provide funds.

Last fall, the Department of Defense gave a $5.9 million grant to the Manhattan Regional Airport in Manhattan, Kansas, to ensure the 7,000-foot runway keeps its 150-foot width after the FAA said it would only pay for a 100-foot-wide runway as part of a reconstruction project set to start next year.

The 150-foot width was deemed necessary for military charter flights that ferry soldiers to and from the nearby Fort Riley Army base.

Also in Kansas, the National Guard Bureau a few years ago paid to reconstruct 5,500 feet of the 12,800-foot main runway at Topeka Regional Airport, after the FAA agreed to pay for only 7,300 feet. However, the runway in Topeka was narrowed from 200 feet to 150 feet.

The runway in Lincoln also is 200 feet wide, so it’s possible, even likely, it will be narrowed.

In a statement, Sen. Deb Fischer said she and her staff have been “coordinating” with the airport, the FAA, the National Guard and the Department of Defense to examine all potential funding sources for the runway in Lincoln.

“The airport is in the early stages of this multi-year process, but we will continue to work together to ensure the best path forward,” Fischer said.

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