Flights in and out of Bethel in Southwest Alaska are regularly being diverted this summer after a runway construction project switched off the navigation system needed by jets landing in inclement weather.
As many as a fifth of all flights have been diverted or canceled, said Alaska Department of Transportation spokesman Rick Feller. Most of planes that cannot land are larger jets reliant on the instrument landing system (ILS), which has been shut down as contractors work on resurfacing half of Bethel’s main 150-foot-wide runway.
Alaska Airlines has canceled 10 flights in the last 12 days and experienced other delays, according to spokeswoman Marianne Lindsey. On Aug. 11 the airline brought in three additional freighters to move cargo that couldn't be delivered on schedule.
Bethel is Alaska’s second-busiest airport, serving the town's 6,000 residents and 56 villages in the region. Millions of pounds of cargo and thousands of passengers pass through the airport each year. Located in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Bethel is the rural hub of Western Alaska, accessible only by plane or boat.
Adding to troubles is that the $8 million runway resurfacing project is behind schedule. Project manager Steve Jochens said delays began after the pavement mix did not meet runway specifications. Construction was suspended while the contractor resolved the mix issues, leaving the largest of the airport's three runways half roto-milled and unusable.
The resurfacing began June 1 and was expected to be completed Aug. 1. But now contractor Knik Construction Company Inc. is shooting for a late September finish.
The idea was to keep half the runway open, so flights could still operate during the work. The trick came in dealing with the ILS. The system is a combination of in-flight instruments and on-the-ground navigation that allows planes to land when a visual approach isn't possible, helping pilots land in fog, low cloud cover or darkness.
Most small planes and regional carriers don’t rely on the system to land. However, larger jets work off the ILS. They can switch to a visual approach on landing. But if cloud cover or fog rolls in, the jets are forced to divert.
“When in doubt, you have to go around and try another approach,” said statewide aviation transportation planner Rich Sewell. “Worst case, they have to turn around and head back to Anchorage.”
The navigation works by zeroing in on a specific navigational point on the center of the runway. Sewell said with the runway split, that point is erroneous and can't be used for landing.
Complicating matters is the difficulty in moving that point. Sewell said to move it even “one iota” would require surveying and changes to the Federal Aviation Administration’s flight procedures. Those changes could take up to a year to implement. Such a complicated and expensive proposition doesn't make sense for a construction project that should take only a few months to complete, Sewell said.
Having no ILS system can also affect departures.
“They can't take off into some clouds without seeing out there,” he said. “It affects the whole operation.”
Construction will need to be completed soon, with winter fast approaching. Lindsey, the Alaska Airlines spokeswoman, wrote in an email that the airline is “anxiously awaiting word on a plan to get the runway returned to service.”
Whether costs associated with the project will go up is unclear. Feller said a construction delay won't necessarily mean cost increases. However, DOT is working with the contractor to assess the cost to complete the project.
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com