Coming Soon! Innovative online database of pavement conditions at North Dakota’s airports

by Danielle Teigen

The engines begin firing. You lock your tray table and seat in the upright position. Maybe you’re engrossed in a mystery novel or listening to your iPod. No matter what you’re doing when an airplane takes off, it’s probably safe to assume you aren’t thinking about the condition of the pavement you’re leaving or landing on.

But airport managers and consulting engineers do. In fact, they’ve spent a substantial amount of time thinking about, studying, measuring, and analyzing the condition of the pavement because it’s the main component of a successful airport. Every three years, the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission (NDAC) secures funding from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct a Pavement Condition Index (PCI) study.

In February 2012, NDAC awarded the Ulteig team the contract for the 2012 North Dakota PCI Study, which will help airports throughout the state manage their budgets by providing an up-to-date record of the pavement condition. The study kicked off in September and information gathering will wrap up in November.

“This project will determine the condition of pavement at airports across the state so they can budget and plan projects to maintain and improve those pavements as needed,” described Kevin Nelson, project manager and associate vice president of aviation.

Pavement represents the largest investment for an airport, so maintaining pavement in excellent condition is important. The PCI study includes 67 of North Dakota’s 72 paved public airports. “The index allows us to maintain consistency on a statewide scale because all the airports are studied using the same system, which benefits us from a statewide planning perspective,” explained Kyle Wanner, aviation planner for NDAC.

PCI: An Engineering Innovation

The PCI procedure has only been in place for about 30 years. After the Vietnam War ended, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) realized its need for a well-trained and well-equipped team that could manage changing airport needs. Previously, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers performed airfield evaluations, but the USAF wanted a group organized within its ranks. The result was an Airfield Pavement Evaluation team organized in 1970 at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio, according to a paper entitled “U.S. Air Force (USAF) Airfield Pavement Evaluation Program,” presented at the Federal Aviation Administration Airport Technology Transfer Conference in 2002.

When airfield pavement testing first began, it was a destructive and disruptive process, often severely interrupting operations with the labor-intensive requirements, according to the article. By the middle of the decade, nondestructive tests emerged, though completing them and properly analyzing the data still required significant amounts of time.

The current PCI procedure was actually developed in the early 1980s as a visual evaluation used to assess the condition of airfield pavement, according to a 2001 article about the pavement condition index. The PCI procedure is commonly used because it has received widespread acceptance throughout the world, creating consistent understanding about pavement conditions among the world’s airports. The scale used for the PCI ranges from 0-100, and the index is used by a variety of agencies to designate the condition of pavement.

Changing The Delivery Method

Airports in North Dakota have used the PCI procedure to evaluate pavement conditions since the 1980s, Wanner said. The final product has always been a static report that is printed or provided on a disc. When Ulteig and its partners decided to propose on the project, they knew they wanted to do something different.

“We heard from a lot of managers that the studies in the past didn’t get looked at after the initial delivery,” Nelson said. “Often only one copy was provided to an airport, and sometimes a manager might put it in their office and never open it again or the report would go to a consultant so the airport wouldn’t even have access to it.”

To address this issue, Ulteig, Applied Pavement Technology, and EVS determined that an online database would better suit the changing needs of North Dakota airports. That means the results of the study will be accessible to any airport managers, pilots or other individuals who require it.

“We are excited to put this useful tool in the hands of airport managers across the state,” said Jon Scraper, vice president of aviation at Ulteig.

A bonus of having the information so accessible means it will be easier for airport managers to present the information to airport authorities, airport boards, or communities when discussing the need for future projects, Wanner said.

“The hope is that airports will be able to take a larger role in planning for the future of their airport by being provided a pavement management system that is easy to use and understand,” he explained. “I believe the selection committee felt that Ulteig and its partners would revolutionize the study and provide a deliverable that would be able to take more of a lead role in airport planning throughout the state.”

Having the information in an online database also means keeping the pavement conditions up-to-date will be easier. When a North Dakota airport plans a repair or replacement, current information from the project can be easily inputted in the PCI database. This allows these airports to develop better strategies for maximizing the money spent on an airport’s largest investment: pavement. Being able to manage funding to properly maintain that investment for the longest period of time is the best use of precious dollars, Scraper said. “Making the information easy to access and utilize means airports can budget for projects at the right time, which would save federal, state, and local airport project dollars,” Wanner explained.

Addressing Changing Traffic Volume

It’s no secret that western North Dakota is seeing unprecedented growth thanks to the oil boom. That growth is also affecting airports in the region that are dealing with increased flight traffic. The four commercial service airports in western North Dakota –Williston, Minot, Bismarck, and Dickinson – have all experienced an increase in traffic associated with the boom. Minot International Airport is currently in the midst of constructing a new terminal, according to a September 1 forum article. An August 2012 Aviation International News article reported that the Williston airport, Sloulin Field, started seeing increased air traffic nearly two years ago and has experienced a 50-fold increase since then.

The awareness about increased air traffic led Ulteig and its partners to also address pavement strengths at the commercial service airports in North Dakota in the 2012 PCI study. These airports are receiving requests from airlines and corporate flight departments to land aircraft at these airports that have never been seen there before. The airport managers need information to know if their pavements can handle the loads that these aircraft will put on their pavements. The project will integrate the strengths of the runways into the online pavement condition reports so both airports and pilots will have fingertip access to the information. The fingertip availability of this information is critical for airport managers in bustling North Dakota.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is adopting international standards of strength reporting for determining pavement strengths.  This standard compares an airport’s Pavement Classification Number (PCN) to an aircraft’s Aircraft Classification Number (ACN). As long as the ACN is less than the PCN, the pavement will be fine and the airport can tell the pilot to go ahead and land there. “The FAA is trending toward requiring this information in the near future, so having it available now will be especially helpful to the airports, especially those in the oil-producing region,” he explained.

A Team Approach

Teamwork is the theme of this study. The Ulteig team includes Applied Pavement Technology, a national leader in state Airport Pavement Management Systems (APMS) projects, and EVS, a nationally recognized expert in pavement engineering and evaluation. These firms will work together to capitalize on each one’s strengths.

The Ulteig team will travel the state – in rain, sunshine, snow, or wind – collecting information from all 67 airports spread throughout the entire state and delivering the data back to the partners for analysis. As project manager, Nelson is responsible for ensuring quality and accuracy, as well as keeping everyone on schedule to achieve important project milestones. He anticipates that collecting information from the 67 airports included will be complete by December, with final product delivered in early 2013. Ulteig has been working in the aviation industry since 1970, providing aviation engineering and planning services to general aviation airports, air carrier airports, and military installations for more than 40 years. APTech’s extensive knowledge, and expertise with APMS projects, complements Ulteig’s experience. The company has completed APMS projects for 21 states. Since 1994, the company has completed more than 2,000 airfield PCI evaluations, and today, averages more than 150 annually. EVS is providing invaluable experience from having gathered PCI data for other clients in the region and beyond.

The Ulteig team isn’t the only one involved with the project. The Ulteig team is also assembling stakeholders throughout the project to give them a voice in how the final product functions. The focus group includes NDAC staff members and airport managers from across the state. Nelson anticipates this involvement means the Ulteig team will provide an even more useful tool to help North Dakota airports budget for upcoming projects and truly revolutionize the management of pavement in North Dakota.

Together, the Ulteig team will provide NDAC and airports throughout North Dakota with invaluable information necessary to continue operating a successful airport system and allowing you to think about other things the next time you’re on an airplane. So sit back, tighten your seatbelt, and rest comfortably knowing that in North Dakota, a group of dedicated professionals are making sure you have a smooth landing.

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