For 54 hours next September, airline crews flying to and from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will have a lot less runway to work with.
For a weekend, BWI plans to close its two busiest runways and rely on a shorter, little-used one as it repaves a critical intersection — the first such closing in more than two decades.
Southwest Airlines, the biggest carrier at BWI, says the construction could trigger delays and schedule changes. British Airways plans to shift weekend flights to Dulles International Airport in Virginia while the paving work is done because the shorter runway is not suitable for its large Boeing 767.
The project is part of a larger effort to upgrade the two longest runways at busy BWI, which set a record for monthly passenger traffic — nearly 2 million in October. On a typical September weekend, BWI handles almost 1,400 takeoffs and landings, said airport spokesman Jonathan Dean.
According to BWI management, the runway project was planned to avoid significant impact to airlines and passengers. But for a period estimated at 54 hours, the Maryland Aviation Administration said, it will have to take the intersection of the main runways out of service to grind off the old surface and put down a new one.
"It is extremely complex," BWI chief executive Paul Wiedefeld said Monday of the paving project, estimated to cost $6 million. "That's why we're nine months out and we've been working on it for six months."
BWI has four runways: two for commercial traffic, one for general aviation and a fourth that is seldom used, Dean said. The two main runways are 10,500 and 9,500 feet long, while the little-used runway known as 04-22 is only 6,000 feet long.
Wiedefeld said using the shorter runway will not pose safety issues because the airlines will have ample time to make adjustments. The biggest challenge will be getting the planes lined up to use the single runway, he said.
The runway BWI will be using during the closure period is far shorter than those used at most major East Coast airports. Runway 04-22 is closer to the length of those at such regional airports as Ithaca, N.Y. (5,801 feet), or Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (6,449). Dean noted, however, that it's not that much different from the two commercial runways at Washington's Reagan National Airport (5,200 and 6,800 feet).
Les Dorr, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman, said that while a 6,000-foot runway affords less margin for error than a longer one, it can still be sufficient for a safe landing. For each landing and takeoff, he said, the plane's crew and computer system must calculate how much runway space will be needed based on such factors as weather and load.
"Any pilot landing on a 6,000-foot runway in a [Boeing] 737 or larger is going to want to watch their landing point," Dorr said.
Airport managers hope to carry out the work the weekend of Sept. 9, if weather permits, with an alternative time of Sept. 16, according to Wiedefeld
Dean said the September weekends were chosen in part because that time of year tends to have fewer storms.
"Twenty years of weather data was examined to determine the best weekend to do that," he said. The shutdown of the two runways will begin at 11 p.m. on a Friday night and continue until 5 a.m. the following Monday.
The last time BWI conducted a similar operation was in 1987, when the intersection was repaved, Dean said. He added that commercial flight operations were maintained on Runway 04-22 on that occasion too — at a time when the runway was still handling the majority of general aviation traffic.
The airport is giving airlines months to make the necessary adjustments to the schedules and choice of aircraft. Wiedefeld said airport officials have briefed airline representatives and the FAA and have consulted with other airports, such as New York's John F. Kennedy International, that have completed similar projects.
"JFK went through a similar experience just last summer," he said.
Paul Flaningan, a spokesman for Southwest, said the 6,000-foot runway is long enough for its fleet of 737s. "It is absolutely sufficient for operations in all weather conditions."
But Southwest could encounter some delays and might have to make some schedule changes, Flaningan said. "We do anticipate making some minor adjustments because of the runway issue."
Relatively few of the flights that land at BWI involve aircraft larger than the 737, Wiedefeld said. One exception is British Airways, which normally uses a 767 for its daily flight between Baltimore and London's Heathrow Airport.
British Airways spokesman John Lampl said a 767 could probably land on a 6,000-foot runway but not take off with a full load. The airline plans to divert the flight to Dulles International Airport for that Saturday and Sunday and provide ground transportation between there and BWI.
The aviation administration will ask the state Board of Public Works on Wednesday for permission to expedite its procurement process to find a contractor for the paving project. The agency wants to complete its solicitation for the contract by mid-February and give the chosen contractor the green light to begin preparatory work by May.