AVOCA — Mike Dennis is a guy you never see, but he knows the importance of pilot visibility.
Dennis, air traffic control manager at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, was pleased to hear U.S. Sen. Bob Casey announce that the Federal Aviation Administration has committed to fund an estimated $3 million to $4 million project to improve the airport’s lighting system.
“This is a very important component of the instrument landing process,” Dennis said at Friday’s press conference. “If an airplane can’t land here, it will have to find an alternative airport.”
How often that happens is not known; Dennis said the airport doesn’t keep those statistics. But, he said, getting the airport’s Medium Intensity Approach Lighting System with Runway Alignment Indicator Lights (MALSR) is essential for safety and for the airport’s future.
Casey, D-Scranton, said the airport is a critical force in the region’s economy and the new lighting system will help Northeastern Pennsylvania remain an attractive destination for businesses and travelers.
Casey announced that after several correspondences with the FAA, he has secured a commitment from the federal agency to upgrade the airport’s lighting system.
In October, Casey pushed for the FAA to commit to the project, which airport Director Barry Centini said helps planes safely land, especially during inclement weather.
Casey, Centini and Dennis detailed the coming improvements and discussed the airport’s role as a driver of regional economic growth that attracts businesses and travelers from all over the country.
“Safe and reliable transportation is critical to our region’s economy, so I’m pleased that the FAA has committed to making these upgrades,” Casey said. “This week’s storm is a perfect example of why this new lighting system is needed, and I’ll continue to push the FAA to prioritize getting this project done.”
Casey said the FAA is planning to have the project completed in 2015. Specifically, the project will repair and replace the airport’s MALSR system.
“We have a commitment,” Casey said after the press conference. “These days in Washington it takes a while to get a quantifiable result. It can sometimes be difficult.”
No local matching funds will be required, he said.
Casey said he was at the airport to deliver “some good news.” He said the region still has a 9 percent unemployment rate and the economy has not yet come all the way back.
“We have a long way to go to dig out, not just from the recent snow storm, but from a slow economy,” Casey said. “This airport is a key to providing an economic boost to the region.”
Dennis and Centini said the MALSR system has been inoperable since February. They said the MALSR system provides greater abilities for aircraft to land in bad weather.
“The system lowers the minimum requirements for visibility,” Centini said. “When inoperable, pilots need one mile of visibility; with the MALSR system in place, they only need a quarter of a mile of visibility.”
The FAA said they will meet with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Airport officials later this month to discuss the design for the system. The FAA is also working to identify interim sources of funding to begin construction later in the winter or early spring. The expectation is that maintenance workers will be able to begin repairs on the lighting system later this summer.
FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta wrote in a letter to Casey that the FAA is finalizing a business case that addresses the repair of the airport’s MALSR system. Huerta said the business case will help the FAA determine the most cost-effective manner to restore MALSR service at the airport.
Options being considered, Huerta said, include repairing existing structures or a total replacement effort.
“Without Sen. Casey’s support, we would just be a number on a board,” Centini said. “With the senator’s help, this project has moved into the FAA’s top 25 projects. That basically ensures we will get this done.”
The runway lighting system that helps guide pilots coming in for a landing at the airport is visible by drivers along Interstate 81. But so many bulbs have burned out, according to Centini, that the system was shut down. Also, the catwalk used for workers to get to the bulbs has become unsteady and not safe to use.