Learning about Airports

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ImageThe World Bank employs a variety of specialists in different disciplines, often with abstract and hard to understand titles. Not me. When people ask what I do for the Bank I say “I build roads”. This often brings laughs from other Bank staff, but it’s true. Unfortunately, I now have to expand it to say “roads and airports” since I’m now on a steep learning curve as I begin preparation of two proposed projects in Tonga and Kiribati to improve the aviation infrastructure.

For remote island countries like Tonga and Kiribati, airports are vital components of their infrastructure.  Maintaining sustainable internal, regional and international transport and communication linkages are crucial to their economic development and social well-being.

In Tonga the Bank has been supporting the government’s reform of the aviation sector through the ‘Tonga Transport Sector Consolidation Project’ (TSCP). The TSCP has helped to establish the Ministry of Transport’s Department of Civil Aviation, as well as supported the establishment of a corporatized operational entity called ‘Tonga Airports Ltd’ (TAL).  TAL has been very effective at establishing a professional commercial organization which is running Tonga’s domestic and international airports.

ImageTonga’s government has requested the Bank to provide further support to the country by assisting TAL with addressing key infrastructure needs at its three main airports: Fua’amotu on the main island Tongatapu, as well as the airports on the outer islands Ha’apai and Vava’u. We mobilized a mission to identify the potential investments and how we could assist the sector reform program.  This meant travelling to the other islands on a small aircraft—providing us stunning views of the beautiful South Pacific. I couldn’t help but contrast this with just under two years ago when I was out in -20 degree C weather in Armenia looking at potential roads to rehabilitate. I’ll take palm trees and beaches over snow and ice any day …

ImageWe used the opportunity to assess some of the aviation investments we had made on the TSCP. It was fascinating for me to go behind the scenes at an airport and see the infrastructure up close and personal. Given how much I fly I realized how little I understood about airport facilities and their operations. I was fortunate to have the Bank’s aviation specialist Charles Schlumberger with me, as well as Vicki Brown, a consultant from Canada (eh!) who specializes in airport facilities. Image

Finally I could see up close equipment which had just been an acronym to me (such as ‘PAPI lights’). I was also able to see the fire tenders that are so expensive (just under $US 1 million each!).

Charles even managed to get a ride in a fire tender on Vava’u, using the excuse that in his younger days he was a volunteer fireman in Switzerland.  We were concerned to see that the firemen still did not have the proper fire suits to protect them in a fire—they only had regular fire fighting gear. 

ImageThe need for improved equipment was identified by our environmentalist Anil Somani on a previous mission as being important so we reminded TAL to procure the gear for the firemen. Still, TAL was much better than at Kiritimati airport in Kiribati where the firemen work bare feet, without helmets and jackets! Not to worry, we will address that should we have a project there.

We toured the Fua’amotu airport perimeter and then the airport control tower.  Definitely a candidate for investments: it was quite disconcerting to see how antiquated the equipment was. I must admit that it is quite self serving, but when one is flying into and out of a country it would be reassuring to know that they have up to date control systems. Charles was amazed to find some World War II era navigation control equipment still in use—but the Tongans said that it worked  fine so why change it. It transmitted a series of beeps which I thought I recognized as Morse Code. Sure enough it was! And I thought that Morse Code was no longer in use.

ImagePerhaps it is my roads background, but I was particularly interested in the runway pavements.  At all three airports they require some form of rehabilitation, but for different reasons. 

The Fua’amotu airport runway was very well designed and hats off to the NZ contractor Fulton Hogan for such excellent work. Although it was almost 20 years since it was built, the runway was only now beginning to show signs of deterioration. This is quite an achievement in a harsh tropical environment like Tonga where the sun’s ultraviolet radiation plays havoc with bitumen.   As the photo shows, there was also a need to remove some of the rubber  that is deposited when the aircraft tires hit the runway on landing.

ImageBy way of contrast, the runway at Ha’apai was very deteriorated and was requiring constant patching.  Even that was not adequate and it was disconcerting to see the extent of the deterioration. It is very important to repair this soon as there is a potential of ‘Foreign Object Damage’ (FOD) to aircraft, which must be avoided at all costs.

Ha’apai also was an excellent example of how bitumen pavements need to have traffic. The public road crossed the airport runway—not to worry, there were gates that they close when flights are arriving—so a 7 metre wide swath of the runway had vehicles crossing it regularly, while the remainder of the runway had only the occasional flight. 

ImageIt was interesting to see that the runway area crossed  by the road was in excellent condition, with no cracks, potholes or evidence of the oxidation so prevalent elsewhere on the runway.  This was a text book example of the viscoelastic behavior of bituminous pavements. Frequent loading and unloading makes it easier to recover from deformation.  Unfortunately, the less frequent cyclical loading of airfield pavements inhibits such recovery and the bitumen ages faster and becomes brittle.
I had not appreciated the damage that aircraft can do to a runway when they turn around. At both Ha’apai and Vava’u, the turning movements had caused problems with the surface dressing. It is for this reason that they often put concrete turning bays at the end of the runways. Even they don’t always work: at Kiritimati they have the turning bays but some flights didn’t use them damaging the pavement.

ImageWhat was most impressive at all three airports in Tonga was the structural strength of the runway pavements.  Had regular maintenance been done on the surfaces, with appropriate treatments used, it would not be necessary to undertake major improvements.  But this is also true for the paved roads in Tonga: they’ve generally done a good job of constructing pavements, it is just a pity that they aren’t properly maintained.

One of the areas that we were interested in investigating was the opportunities for us to introduce ‘green’ airport technologies which would potentially lead to carbon neutral airport operations. ImageVicki shared how simple improvements, such as replacing the runway lights with LED lights would reduce the energy consumption by 90%. One can install passive and active technologies to terminals which significantly reduce their energy consumption—and of course there is potential for solar lighting and solar power generation.

There are also opportunities for rain water harvesting. This would collect and store rain water from roof areas to significantly reduce the potable water demand and preserve natural water resources. The water could be used to service all sanitary demands and provide required collections for fire water for Crash Fire Rescue demands, and ground vehicle maintenance. Within all three airports water consumption will be reduced by utilizing fixtures and valves within the terminal buildings that are high efficiency/low consumption.

Our mission found ample opportunities to provide support to Tonga in the aviation sector and to help them achieve their goal of having safe and secure air transport operations with environmentally sustainable and efficient airports. The challenge now is for us to help Tonga achieve this vision, building on the success of the TSCP.


Chris Bennett

Lead Transport Specialist

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