The Bethel airport is busy. It’s the third busiest passenger airport in the state and the second busiest cargo airport in the state. But the coming and going of airplanes, people and materials has been a lot more complicated this summer because of the on-going construction there. High winds, which are common in the region, is all it takes for a flight delay or cancellation. The project to resurface the run-way has cut the size in half, which has prevented many larger planes from landing. Instrument approaches have been closed by the FAA. Some say over 100 Alaska Airlines flights alone have been affected this summer.
Bethel city council member, Rick Robb, spoke about it at a meeting, August 28th.
“I think that the State Department of Transportation has to realize what a serious issue this is for this community,” said Robb.
He said the delayed project is beyond an inconvenience. It’s affecting the economic life blood of the community and it’s a safety concern.
“We have people right now in our hospital that are trying to go to hospitals in Anchorage that can’t get out,” Robb said. “I happen to work for YKHC and I know some individuals right now sitting in beds that can’t get out. Some people for days sitting in the hospital. And this is an unacceptable situation.”
The problem revolves around the quality of the material being used in the resurfacing. KNIK construction is the contractor on the job and they’ve been working at getting the right mix that meets the state’s requirements. But there’s been a lot of trial and error.
Mayor Joseph Klejka has written to the Governor about the community’s concerns. In his letter, Klejka states that people are worried that the construction is taking too long and flights will be even worse come winter. More foul weather and dark days will make flights even more difficult to get in and out of Bethel.
Morgan Merritt with the State Department of Transportation says a plan is in place to get the project complete, at least temporarily. He gave Bethel city council an update during their last meeting. Merritt said the plan includes refilling the side of the runway that has been excavated.
“The goal is to basically put a Bandaid on that and remark it and basically get a test flight with FAA in probably 20 to 30 days,” Merritt said. “So, we’re estimating it will be 20 to 30 days before the instrument approach is reopened by the FAA. And assuming that KNIK gets its paving straight, and then the markings, and the flight check with FAA, and then they will open that.”
Mayor Klejka responded: “I think the huge concern for Bethel is it just has to get done before winter.”
Again, Morgan Merritt: “It is a very high priority and there is a financial penalty being applied to the contractor right now and if they don’t fix it will apply to them all through the winter and they’re doing their best to get that reopened.”
Merritt says they don’t know yet whether the material that’s going down now will be temporary or permanent, but it will have to withstand grooving.
“Particularly in the wintertime under icy conditions and wet conditions of the fall,” Merritt said. “So they can’t just put down peanut butter, it’s got to be pretty good.”
Merritt says it is very likely that KNIK will succeed with at least a temporary fix. The downside of that would be the interruption of flights again next summer when they would have to dig up the airstrip again.
Merritt told council that DOT administration is well aware of the issue.
“The commissioner has a personal interest in this,” Merritt said. “He’s working on changing our specification so in the future that’s going to demand a better proof before they interrupt an instrument approach airport such as yours.”
The project deadline is the end of September. If KNIK doesn’t make the deadline, the state will enforce more penalties against them.