Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Pouring Concrete

There's been a lot of flap in the media lately between homeowners, airport development officials, and airspace redesign initiatives. I'm not getting into that debate; that's for other blogs and other forums. I will say that all parties should follow the letter of the law along with established procedures to make sure changes are legal, well-researched, and - most importantly - safe.

No one - outside of an aviation nut - is a fan of having noisy, stinky airplanes running through their backyards on their way to the local airport. The last thing homeowners want is more noisy, stinky airplanes making their presence known.

However, it's simple and unarguable math that building an extra runway or extending an existing one to handle larger aircraft will ease delays and add more efficiency to an airport. From an economic perspective, increased airport traffic volume (both enplanements and cargo) leads to economic growth for the communities served by that airport. Unfortunately, that math never comes down on the side of those who own houses near the airport.

That's what this post is about: finding ways for potential homeowners to make sure they're not caught on the pointy end of an airport expansion program.

The fact is, airports always grow. The exceptions include smaller, more private airports that may be stunted by residential development around them and eventually killed off by community or economic pressures. However, your typical regional and commercial airports will always need to expand to meet demands of increasing traffic and larger aircraft. New runways, longer runways, more parking, more support structures (fuel farms, parts and food vendors, maintenance, etc.), and larger terminals are built in order to meet new requirements and keep the airport competitive.

Unfortunately, many people don't seem to realize this. They move into a neighborhood, think "Oh, we're a mile and a half away from the runway end. Nothing can touch us. We can live our life in quiet, since you can barely hear those little regional jets and piston singles." Yet a year down the line they'll see a big "X" on the end of a now-closed runway as construction crews pour 5000 foot of dirt and concrete to extend that runway within 1/2 mile of their house. Within two years, the runway's been finished and flight checked, and now the newly enlarged runway brings 747's and A330's a mere 400 feet over their heads on final. Their property value plummets, since who wants to buy a house where the windows rattle every two minutes and a "quiet backyard meal" turns into a shouting match over the roar of high bypass turbofans?

How could they have avoided this? Easy. They should have looked at the Airport Master Plan. Every airport has one and it is a public document that is easily acquired by a simple phone call or e-mail to the airport manager's office. Many of them are available online, just a quick Google search away.

The Master Plan is, as the title suggests, a forward-looking document that talks about where the airport is currently and what it needs to do to improve. Future development is typically expressed in phases that cover multiple aspects of the airport, such as runways, terminals, and parking. It uses forecasts of changes in traffic and in the community to make recommendations for development. Costs and revenue sources are also discussed based upon these predictions.

For example, let's say Airport ABC has a capacity of 100,000 enplanements per year, is currently at 80,000, and is predicted to increase to 150,000 within 10 years. Up until now the airport's facilities and runways have only been able to handle aircraft up to a 737 or A320, while the majority of the traffic has been regional aircraft such as ERJ-145's and CRJ-900's. This has limited the types of aircraft airlines have been able to use for their flights.

The Master plan could include:
  • Building a new terminal to add 50% more gates, all of which are designed to accommodate heavy aircraft up to Boeing 767 or Airbus A300 size.
  • Lengthening and strengthening the existing runway to accommodate the heavier airplanes.
  • Improving the ILS approach from a CAT I to a CAT III to provide lower minimums for the larger airliners.
  • Converting the existing parking lot into a four level parking garage, tripling or quadrupling the parking spaces.
  • Expanding the fuel farm to store additional fuel.
  • Build a new cargo terminal to provide additional revenue.
  • Laying down a second, shorter runway to accomodate corporate and general aviation aircraft.
These changes normally take place over a number of years. Some of the plans I've seen go out as far as 25 years, giving home buyers in the area a good long range view of what the airport plans to do with itself. The government takes a long time to do anything; runways and parking lots don't pop up overnight, especially when funding needs to be secured.

A Close Call

I almost ended up getting burned myself. My wife and I bought a house late last year, but it took us 8 months of hunting to find the one we ended up buying. However, about two months into the hunt, we came across one that we quickly fell in love with. It had everything we wanted and we were ready to sign that contract.

Thankfully that love affair just turned out to be a one night stand, as another family bought it out from under us. Ironically, that family must be hating life right now. After we found out the house was under contract, I had the idea to look for Pensacola's airport master plan. Well, I was shocked and relieved by what I found.

However, before I get into what's coming for the airport, let me discuss the current situation.

The Present

This is what the house's owners are dealing with at this time.
  • Too Close for Comfort: We knew the house was close to the airport. However, we hadn't realized just how close. It's less than 1/2 nautical miles from the threshold of Runway 17. Take a look at this image:

    When we viewed the house in April 2007, Runway 17/35 was still under redevelopment. The runway didn't actually re-open until November 2007. So, while we were enjoying the tree-shaded backyard and musing how quiet and private it was, we had no idea that within six months we would have been treated to the sounds of Boeing 757s and Navy fighters passing only a few hundred feet overhead. I love airplanes and I don't think even I could have handled that.
  • Faster and Bigger: Normally we deal in regional jets and general aviation. However, over the past year our overall aircraft size has been increasing. Now in addition to dozens of RJ's we get up to two 757s a day, several 737s, multiple MD-88s and 717s, and now some ATR-72s. Noise volume continues to get louder and louder. However, the real boomers are the Navy's T-45 Goshawks that we're starting to see here. These single engine training jets are louder and smokier than any 757. One took off from here the other day, making the building rumble as it left a smoky trail behind it.
  • The Bunny: Many airports feature Approach Lighting Systems to lead pilots to the runway in IFR conditions. One of the most common configuration is a series of rhythmic strobe lights mounting on poles of descending heights that lead aircraft to the runway. Either because the idea resembles the animatronic rodent used in dog races or the fact that you're following it down a mysterious hole (in the weather) like Alice in Wonderland, it's commonly called "The Rabbit". Here's a diagram of one of these systems:

    That's the concept. Here's the reality: multiple ultra-powerful strobe lights mounted high on poles spaced even distances apart, flashing endlessly in rhythm every time the weather goes to pot. Each light structure has multiple bulbs, with each single bulb powerful enough to light up several football fields.

    The lights do point up into the sky and when it's clear they have nothing to reflect them back to the ground. However, when the fog or the rain comes in, the lights reflect off the mist creating an effect akin to repetitive lightning bolts.

    Now, imagine if these lights were only a few hundred feet from your house. Actually, I'll imagine it for you. Here's an animation of what it looks when I drive past there at night when it's IFR:

    You've already got noise and pollution. Now when you're trying to settle in to read a book on a stormy night, your windows are flashing like a nightclub lighting system on speed. Time to get some hotel-style "blackout curtains" I guess....
The Future

Now, what's in store for our intrepid homeowners? When I typed "Pensacola Airport Master Plan" into Google, it brought me to this page.

The two links on the top of the page discuss development within the airport's existing footprint. Both do not seem to affect the surrounding communities too much in their effort to improve the airport's facilities.
However, the red flag went up when I saw the link on the left labelled "Land Acquisition Program". If you're not familiar with the concept of eminent domain, it's time to look it up. Basically, the government has the right to take private property and use it for its own purposes. Normally this is used for public works projects, such as utilities, highways, and railroads. If the government decides it wants to run a highway over your house, it has every right to do so as long as it provides fair compensation for your property. Unfortunately for the homeowners, "fair compensation" is usually a lot less than what they were hoping for since, for all intents and purposes, their home is condemned.

The intent here is to build an Commerce Park that serves the airport. What's interesting is that Pensacola Airport has decided to be civil about it and is making it a voluntary process. Instead of tearing people's houses out from under them, they're letting the owners sell them on their own terms. Rather than grab all that real estate, it's being sold to the airport's owners one lot at a time.

How does this affect the house in question? According to the map of properties, this commerce park is just to the northwest of the airport, cornered by Tippin and Langley Avenues. This map also shows you which properties have already been purchased.

Where does the house lie?
Yup - it's just as close to the airport as the land being redeveloped. Based on what I'm seeing, I'm going to make an educated guess and say that within 5 or 10 years, the updated Airport Master Plan will have a provision for purchasing those lots to the northeast of the airport as well. I hope the new homeowners don't plan on staying there too long.

What Will Be

Buying a house is all about the potential of the space you're purchasing. Usually that means things like laying pretty wood laminate over that old vinyl floor, putting in new appliances while tossing out the old ratty ones, or simply putting up a new coat of paint to replace that nasty wallpaper. In a larger scope, you take a look at the neighborhood to see if your neighbors really take care of their houses and what kinds of developments are going on around you. Most people do that before they take the plunge, since they want to know what they're getting into.

But if you're buying near an airport, you owe it to yourself to protect your investment and research as much as you can. Pull your view even further back and look at your city's infrastructure as a whole to see how it could change over the next few years. Obviously the airport is a major part of that, but other public works projects like highways and utilities should be watched as well. Don't get trapped in a house that's both uncomfortable to live in and impossible to sell because you didn't take into account what the city had been planning for years.

1 comment:

FAA Follies said...

One thing that you've left out of your incredibly excellent blog entry is that these airport plans are all sitting around LONG in advance at local planning/zoning authorities.

In other words, the local city or county government knows perfectly well where this stuff is going to happen.

It's a huge failure of such governments, in my opinion, if/when people don't know about these kinds of things when they buy.

The local governments are all too happy to let the FAA and possibly some more obscure airport authority to take the heat when it's time for the airport to expand, but the reality of the situation is that those governments knew perfectly well what might/would happen; there's just too many people with too many interests in seeing it go smoothly for any of them to actually talk about what's up.