Crash of Flight 5191

Little room to improve: Landlocked airport is unable to allow optimal safety zones

Lexington’s small regional airport is justly proud of more than $50 million in improvements it has made in the past decade, including a new parking garage, expansions of two concourses and a smooth new surface on its main 7,003-foot runway.

Even with all the work, however, Blue Grass Airport does not meet optimal safety guidelines for new runways. Those require safety zones of 1,000 feet on both ends of the runway.

Instead, like many airports around the country, Blue Grass operates under an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration that allows it to have shorter safety zones because of the airport’s special constraints.

The airport is safe even with the shorter zones because the largest commercial planes that fly in and out of Lexington are 737s, said FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen. “Each safety zone is established for each runway,” according to the aircraft that fly there, Bergen said.

The 1,000-foot zone is an “optimal” measurement. But when the FAA first decided on that length in the late 1990s, it found that nearly half of the nation’s 1,015 runways needed improvements, and many of them would never be able to find 1,000 feet at both ends of their runways.

“They would like to enforce it, but they can’t,” said Paul Czysz, a retired professor of aviation at St. Louis University. Instead, the FAA works with each airport to figure out a “determination of practicable acceptability.”

And that means that everyone involved has worked out a deal that combines safety, physical reality and political expediency.

“The reality is there’s not a political organization that runs a city that’s willing to move a highway or something like that to get another 250 feet,” Czysz said. “So airports do the best they can.”

In Lexington’s case, the physical reality -- and the politics that go with it -- is a runway hemmed in on one end by busy Versailles Road and the storied Keeneland horse track, and on the other by lush horse-farm land owned by people with the money and inclination to fight expansion.

That’s just what happened 10 years ago, when equine and other community interests helped beat back a proposal to add a 9,000-foot runway at the airport. It was one of the more bitter fights over growth and development in recent Lexington history.

“It was contentious, and it was difficult,” said Mike Flack, who was executive director of the airport during part of the debate.

In the most recent upgrade of the airport’s master plan, any chance of expansion with another runway was quashed.

That won’t change any time soon, which means that as much as Lexington grows, Blue Grass will never be anything more than a relatively small regional airport. And that’s just fine, airport officials say, because even if Blue Grass Airport could grow, it’s plenty big enough to handle the area’s needs.

Expansion usually opposed

The airport’s layout has come under scrutiny again after the Aug. 27 crash of a Comair jet that killed 49 of the 50 people on board. The plane crashed into a farm field and burst into flames after the pilots tried to take off on the wrong runway, No. 26, which was too short for the craft to get airborne.

In some past plans for the airport, that runway was eliminated altogether, leading some to speculate on “what ifs” about airport expansion.

But in 1942, when Blue Grass Field was founded across a two-lane road from Keeneland Race Course, it looked as though there was plenty of room to grow.

Although used as a military airport during World War II, by 1946 Blue Grass was up and running as a civilian airport under the control of an appointed citizen board. Runways and terminals continued to grow; by 1980, that main runway, 4-22, was expanded from 6,500 feet to its present 7,000.

As with airports everywhere, all planning was done through FAA-required documents, master plans that looked 20 years ahead but were updated every five years. They reflected both changes in aviation and changes in local communities.

As early as the 1970s, airport board members discussed the possible need for another runway. In 1995, the idea became more concrete: The board proposed a 9,000-foot runway that would run parallel to Runway 22.

A fight broke out immediately. Speaking for the airport board was director Mike Flack, who thought Lexington’s air traffic clearly needed two runways.

On the opposing side were nearby neighborhood associations, Mayor Pam Miller and the horse farms closest to the airfield.

During the runway fight, Flack said recently, the attitude of Miller and others was “we’ve got a great airport. I don’t see why we have to change.”

An opposition group, Save Our Irreplaceable Land, started up and was funded with the help of Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum of the ruling family of Dubai, who owned Shadwell Farm, directly behind the airport. Other members included Keeneland, Mill Ridge Farm and Jonabell Farm, which would have been affected by loss of land and more air traffic. Sheikh Hamdan’s brother, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al Maktoum, the crown prince of Dubai, bought Jonabell Farm in 2001.

Miller questioned the need for such drastic growth and took one step by changing the makeup of the airport board, letting go some members who had been there for more than 20 years, and expanding the membership with new people from the community.

Larry Brandstetter, a Lexington architect and former legislator who served on the airport board in the mid-1990s, said if the master plan for a new runway had been implemented, Runway 26 -- which figured so prominently in the Comair crash -- would have been taken out of service.

“We would not have had that crash” if that plan had been carried out, he said.

Mike Gobb, the airport’s executive director, disagrees, saying that lawsuits and other issues would have delayed that project to such a degree that Runway 26 would still be open.

In the midst of the debate over the parallel runway, some community leaders even talked about moving the airport altogether, maybe to a site in Clark County, closer to Eastern Kentucky.

By 1997, the anti-runway groups clearly had the upper hand, helped by a new director, Gobb, who was seen as less of an expansion advocate than Flack had been. SOIL and other neighborhood groups questioned the airport’s forecast numbers for future passengers.

Finally, the antis were aided by aviation trends: Airlines were now using smaller jets for regional flights, which meant longer runways were not as necessary.

In 2001, there was a sudden, unexpected reversal when the airport board, despite all expectations, voted again to build a new runway, this time at 7,000 feet. But Miller and other city council members quickly persuaded the board to change its vote.

“If the board had stuck with that decision, there certainly would have been litigation from the horse farm community, and it would have gone on for years,” Miller said.

Citizens help plan

In 2003, the Blue Grass Airport master plan needed another update, and this time, the board took a different approach. It appointed a citizens advisory committee to help the airport board decide the airport’s future.

“It opened up the process and gave people a chance to give input,” said Walter May, a Lexington lawyer who served on the committee.

May thinks it was especially important to have representatives from the horse industry. “I think they were somewhat resistant to the idea of planning, but as it turned out the results pleased them so much they thought planning was great.”

Gobb said that despite the fact no one expected consensus, the group came up with three basic agreements:

The airport would stay where it was;

There should be a smaller, crosswind runway for general aviation, or private, planes, and that should be updated.

Land-use planning should direct any future changes to the airport.

“What came out of those meetings was a very good solution to the situation at hand, and will satisfy the needs of the airport for a long time to come,” said Rick Nichols, manager of Shadwell Farm.

Certainly, the horse people got what they wanted, but Gobb said Lexington’s signature industry also needs a good airport.

“The Blue Grass Airport has to be as healthy and vibrant as it can be to support their operation,” he said, which includes an equine hauling business based at the airport.

The Louisville airport expanded in the 1990s without nearly so much opposition despite the relocation of about 9,000 homes and businesses in its path. But much of this enlargement was to help UPS, one of Louisville’s largest employers.

So if UPS was the economic engine behind that expansion, then the horse industry is what helps keep Blue Grass the way it is.

“We’re pro-airport,” said Nick Nicholson, Keeneland’s president. “We want the airport to be as big as it needs to be to do what is needs to do, and we think it is.

“What’s best for the community will sooner or later work out what’s best for Keeneland.”

Fitting in zones difficult

The current agreement with the FAA allows pilots 6,600 feet for landing, which gives them a 1,000-foot safety zone. For takeoffs, the safety zone is 600 feet because they need a longer runway to get airborne. The agreement is good so long as much bigger planes don’t start operating there, or until the FAA changes the standards.

When the optimum length on safety areas was conceived, Blue Grass turned out to be one of many that would have difficulty meeting it.

“There wasn’t enough money in the system to make all these runways compliant,” Gobb said.

According to the FAA, in 2000, there were 1,015 commercial runways in the United States; 557 met safety standards. By late September 2006, improvements had been completed on 236 of the 458 remaining. Runway safety area improvements are planned on the rest by 2015.

Blue Grass Airport is sometimes compared to Midway in Chicago, which is hemmed in by suburbs and busy highways. Last year, a plane landing at Midway in heavy snow crashed through a fence onto a highway, killing a 6-year-old boy and injuring several other people. The accident raised questions about landlocked airports near residential areas.

“It’s been operating for 60 years, and when it first started out it had plenty of runout space. The runout space disappeared,” Czysz said.

Blue Grass will continue renovations, which should last well beyond the next 20 years, perhaps into the next 75, Gobb said.

Planes are getting bigger; the next generation will bring 70-, 90- and 100-passenger jets, but they’re being designed for shorter runways.

Plans include expanded parking as well as moving and lengthening Runway 26 parallel to Versailles Road. When that happens, the two runways will no longer intersect.

Runway 26 will become Runway 27, a 5,000-foot space for private airplanes, which account for 60,000 of the 90,000 takeoffs and landings every year. Work on Runway 27 should be finished by 2009, in time for the 2010 World Equestrian Games, Gobb said, where more people will be flying privately than on commercial airlines. Funding for the $15 million project -- probably from federal sources -- won’t be set until environmental studies are finished.

Gobb likes to point out that Blue Grass Airport is roughly the same size as Washington National Airport, which sends 737s to the West Coast every day.

“Our issue here isn’t that we’re constrained by the runway,” he said. “It’s that we don’t have enough people to fill a 737 to Los Angeles every day.”

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