Aviation News

June 7, 2010

JFK Airport Runway Replacement Megaproject Approaching On-Time Arrival

Construction personnel are seen completing work on the north side of the Bay Runway as two arriving aircraft taxi to the terminal
Construction personnel are seen completing work on the north side of the Bay Runway as two arriving aircraft taxi to the terminal. (Photo by Matt Molnar)
Unlike your flight to visit grandma in Boca Raton, the massive $376 million project to renovate the longest, busiest runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York is running right on schedule, according to those running the operation. Jim Steven, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey manager in charge of the project, took us on a tour of the job last week and seems very optimistic the Bay Runway will reopen on July 1st, just as planned. “They gave me 120 days, not 121 days,” says Steven bluntly. He isn’t the only one motivated to finish on time, as contractors will earn bonuses if they complete the job early—or face stiff penalties for every hour they’re late once the calendar hits July.

The 3-mile-long Runway 13R/31L, called the “Bay Runway” because it runs along the shore of Jamaica Bay, is one of the biggest commercial runways in the world—long enough to be a designated emergency landing strip for the Space Shuttle. It is also one of the busiest runways, as it handles about 40 percent of JFK’s annual take-offs.

Having become worn since its last major repair nearly two decades ago, the Bay Runway was closed on March 1st for a complete overhaul and some major improvements with a goal of reducing delays by up to 10,500 hours annually. The surface has been widened to 200 feet to better accommodate the new Airbus A380 superjumbo. Two new high-speed taxiways are being added to shave the time it takes for flights to move between the terminal and the runway, which will save passengers time and save airlines money. Taxiway intersections are being pre-wired for the FAA’s new Runway Status Lights system, which will act like traffic lights to help prevent dangerous runway incursions. And the asphalt surface is being replaced with 18-inch-thick concrete, expected to last 40 years without a major fix, versus the eight-year expected life of an asphalt runway.

So how do you reconstruct a huge, busy runway at a notoriously delay-prone airport without causing massive headaches for airlines, travelers and air traffic controllers? Steven says the project’s smooth sailing so far is thanks largely to years of planning with the input of engineers, airlines and the FAA. And the planning is visibly impressive. Here are a few of the biggest hurdles faced by the project planners and how they decided to solve them.

A jetBlue Embraer E-190 lifts off from Runway 22R where it intersects with Runway 13R/31L. Both of these runways will be closed for 15 days in September to finish off the project.

Problem 1: Replace the runway the runway as quickly as possible while minimizing impact on travelers and airlines.

Solution: Most runway replacement projects are completed a small section at a time, with work only taking place during the airport’s off-hours, usually overnight and on weekends. For a strip as long as the Bay Runway, however, Steven says it would have taken as long as four years to finish the job, with the looming potential for disruptions to air traffic throughout that time. Planners chose a one-shot solution which will be less painful in the long-term, closing the runway for a four month stretch and working on it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Three runways remain open to air traffic, and airlines agreed to maintain their slower winter schedules to help prevent bottlenecks.

Widening the runway and scraping off the old surface produced mountains of dirt and rocks, all of which must be loaded into convoys of trucks before the runway can reopen.

Problem 2: With hundreds of workers and as many as 75 construction vehicles moving in and out of the work area several times a day, every day, planners had to enable them to flow as smoothly as possible. Transversing the secure areas of the airport would require time-intensive searches with every trip, and adding that many vehicles to the airport’s busy taxiways and runways would also disrupt air traffic.

Solution: Project organizers cordoned off the Bay Runway with 2 1/2 miles of perimeter fence, separating it from the secure, active parts of the airport, eliminating the need for searches. They also built miles of temporary access roads to make it easy for trucks to move from exterior roads straight to the job site without disrupting fliers heading to and from the airport or aircraft movements on taxiways.

The new concrete surface is expected to last 40 years without requiring a major repair.

Problem 3: A 14,575 foot-long, 200 foot-wide, 18-inch-thick runway requires a heckuva lot of concrete.

Solution: Contractors built a cement plant at the airport and trucked in all the sand and gravel needed to produce up to 4,000 cubic yards of concrete daily. Plus, because of the ultra-time-sensitive nature of the project, they built a backup cement plant on-site just in case the main one were to break down.

During our visit, construction of the new runway itself was nearly complete. In the final weeks of the project, workers are busy building the new taxiways and trucking away mountains of dirt and rock created from widening the runway and scraping up the old surface. Soon, they will paint the runway and taxiway markings and install the lighting, and when that is all done, the miles of temporary roads and fencing will be torn out.

The Port Authority says the project created as many as 1,000 direct and 2,500 ancillary jobs and generated $800 million in economic activity. While the main portion of work is scheduled to be completed just in time for the peak summer travel period (and turtle mating season) the Bay Runway and another that it intersects will be closed for 15 days in September to complete the job.


  • Uresh

    What work has to be done on the runway in the 15 days in September?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/longacre Matt Molnar

      Good question. They will be resurfacing the part that intersects with runway 4L/22R and extends to 4R/22L.

  • Uresh

    What work has to be done on the runway in the 15 days in September?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/longacre Matt Molnar

      Good question. They will be resurfacing the part that intersects with runway 4L/22R and extends to 4R/22L.

  • Myron

    Interesting article. I was unaware that there will be a closure again in September.

  • Myron

    Interesting article. I was unaware that there will be a closure again in September.

  • Jonathan

    Great article. Just to clarify though…Did they build a cement plant or a concrete batch plant on site? Cement is one ingredient of a concrete mix. A concrete batch plant combines the ingredients into a concrete mix. Maybe it was a large enough project that a cement plant was needed?

    • Project Safety MGR

      Yes – we did build an on-site concrete batch plant – we even erected a back-up plant in the event the primary plant went down. So far we have about 170,000 cubic yards laid down that's about 17 thousand trucks running from our plant to the job-site. I have addtional photos of the plants or even the job-site.

      Thank You
      Ed Conway
      JFK Project Safety Manager
      Tutor Perini

  • Jonathan

    Great article. Just to clarify though…Did they build a cement plant or a concrete batch plant on site? Cement is one ingredient of a concrete mix. A concrete batch plant combines the ingredients into a concrete mix. Maybe it was a large enough project that a cement plant was needed?

    • Project Safety MGR

      Yes – we did build an on-site concrete batch plant – we even erected a back-up plant in the event the primary plant went down. So far we have about 170,000 cubic yards laid down that's about 17 thousand trucks running from our plant to the job-site. I have addtional photos of the plants or even the job-site.

      Thank You
      Ed Conway
      JFK Project Safety Manager
      Tutor Perini

  • David

    Has information on what days the two runways will be closed in September? Sounds like it would be good to steer clear of JFK those days!

  • David

    Has information on what days the two runways will be closed in September? Sounds like it would be good to steer clear of JFK those days!

  • gene kinsella

    Date in Sept. when runway 31/ will be open to traffic?? Yesterday Delta's Flt. # 1 to London was late
    over 300 minutes ( Aug. 19th. 2010 )…I have a trip on Delta #1 on Sept. 8th. 2010, will runway be open??

    Thank you, Gene Kinsella e-mail ethel243@aol.com

  • gene kinsella

    Date in Sept. when runway 31/ will be open to traffic?? Yesterday Delta's Flt. # 1 to London was late
    over 300 minutes ( Aug. 19th. 2010 )…I have a trip on Delta #1 on Sept. 8th. 2010, will runway be open??

    Thank you, Gene Kinsella e-mail ethel243@aol.com