Providence Journal Online
Train station and runway plan will define T.F. Green Airport this Year
Saturday, January 2, 2010
By Paul Edward Parker, Journal Staff Writer

WARWICK — Two key projects that promise to transform T.F. Green Airport made substantial advances in 2009 and are expected to hit major milestones this year.

“2010 is going to be a significant year for us,” said Kevin A. Dillon, president of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, the state agency that runs Green and several smaller state-owned airports.

If all goes as planned, Dillon expects the airport to receive federal approval to extend its main runway and to open its “intermodal facility,” a commuter rail station and parking garage connected by an elevated walkway to a rental-car operation and the main passenger terminal.

Construction on the intermodal facility began in 2008 and continued throughout 2009. Today, it can’t be missed by anyone visiting the airport or driving by on Post Road, which has been spanned by a 1,200-foot skywalk connecting the terminal to the rental-car counters.

“It’s going to be a major marketing enhancement for us,” said Dillon, adding that the rail connection to the airport is the primary attraction to airlines considering starting or expanding service at Green. “That is always something that piques their interest.”

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority has approved extending commuter rail service, which now terminates in Providence, to Warwick once the station there opens, now scheduled for September. That will give Green passengers easy access to metro Boston, Dillon said. And, because the tracks passing through the Warwick station are part of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, future service to New York is possible, he said.

The project has also generated good will among the airport, the City of Warwick, rental car companies and — especially — the airlines, who normally pay eventually for airport projects through higher fees to use the airport. “It’s a major airport enhancement, and it’s being done essentially on someone else’s dime,” Dillon said. “It’s one of the few projects that seems to be a win-win all the way around.”

That’s not true of the airport’s other major project — expanding the main runway — and other infrastructure improvements.

Dillon said the longer runway will not increase the airport’s capacity for handling planes, but will make the airport more attractive to airlines by allowing them to reach more distant destinations and to carry more passengers in each plane to nearer destinations.

“It really will allow us to realize the full potential of this airport,” said Dillon.

Planes carrying more passengers or more fuel to reach more distant destinations are heavier than the planes currently serving Green. A longer runway would allow those heavier planes to take off because they need extra distance to reach takeoff speed with the added weight.

The City of Warwick has long opposed expansion of the runway, citing, among other concerns, disruption of businesses and residents near the airport and damage to wetlands.

Dillon acknowledged that the complaints of those living near the airport, especially about the noise of low-flying jetliners, are legitimate. “Yeah, we cause negative impacts, but there’s an awful lot of good stuff that comes with the airport,” he said, naming economic activity as key.

Dillon said he has been talking with residents and city officials and is hopeful of coming to some sort of agreement about the project. “While there’s still a number of issues that have to be reconciled with the city ... we’re a lot closer on this than most people realize.”

In May 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration, which decides whether the project should be undertaken, backed a relatively new proposal to extend the 7,100-foot main runway to the southwest by 1,600 feet. The agency chose that proposal over earlier — and more controversial — proposals to extend it to the northeast, by either 1,600 or 2,250 feet. The southwest proposal requires less substantial relocation of roads around the airport and doesn’t affect Buckeye Brook wetlands that lay in the path of the northeast proposals.

Dillon said he expects the FAA to approve a draft environmental impact statement for the project in the spring, with a final environmental impact statement in the late summer. He expects the agency to issue its decision before the end of the year.

“I think we’re finally going to get that elusive record of decision in 2010,” he said.

If the project is approved, it would take two to three years to complete.

Among other developments possible this year:

• Green expects to receive at least one full-body scanner to screen passengers boarding planes. The machines would allow security officers to detect explosive devices that would be missed by metal detectors, such as the one authorities say a Nigerian man tried to ignite on a Detroit-bound flight on Christmas Day.

• New carriers may announce the commencement of service to Green, though Dillon said nothing is planned.

Likely candidates include JetBlue and AirTran, discount carriers that fly out of Boston’s Logan International Airport, where Southwest, the nation’s largest discount carrier, began service in 2009.

Another possibility is Ryanair, based in Ireland, which is considering transatlantic service and has named Green as one of several possible destinations in the Northeast.

Dillon declined to say whether Green is negotiating with any of those airlines. “As an airport operation, we keep our oar in the water with everybody,” he said. “It’s important for us to remain aggressive in terms of attracting service levels.”