If all politics is local, aviation should be no exception, whether the locale is big or small. So it was natural that Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., argued at a hearing this week on the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen air traffic control modernization project that the FAA ought do more to ensure safety at Newark Liberty International airport, which had 17.5 million passengers boarding last year.
So, too, Democratic Sen. Mark Begich could make the case for Unalaska airport on Amaknak Island in the Aleutian chain, which had 28,556 enplanements in 2013. (Unalaska is also known as Dutch Harbor and was bombed by Japanese planes in June 1942 as part of the diversion from the Japanese attack on Midway Island.)
Begich took the opportunity to press FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker about a topic he said was “very specific – very parochial,” adding wryly, “Not that anything I do is parochial.”
Begich told Whitaker “I was just in Unalaska which is not the easiest place to fly in. Short runway, high winds. I flew in with the Coast Guard and even they were wondering whether we could make it in.”
Unalaska needs an anemometer to measure wind speeds “on the tail end of the runway which is … near the mountain,” Begich said. “So obviously when you’re landing on that airport, it’s a short runway and your end of that runway is a mountain and there are high winds, they’d like to measure that wind. They have been struggling with the FAA for years — years — to get this one piece of equipment” that could ensure that flights can land more safely.
Unalaska, he said, is “a very large industrial area. A lot of the stuff coming from the Pacific Rim comes through that area and that port and that airport is busy. So can you just put that on your shopping list?”
“I will follow up and take a look at that,” Whitaker promised.
Unalaska could get busier in the next few years as shipping in the Arctic region expands due to climate change.
Reporting on Begich’s visit to Unalaska last month along with Coast Guard Rear Adm. Thomas Ostebo, Alaska radio station KUCB said, “If a cargo ship experienced a spill or grounding on the Northern Sea Route — which cuts through melting ice above Russia — Unalaska would serve as a jumping-off point for emergency response” by the Coast Guard.
Begich also used Wednesday’s hearing to press Whitaker on plans to install more ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance] ground stations to improve safety for general aviation.
“Whenever we talk to FAA, FAA always says ‘we’ve covered Alaska.’ That’s true 13,000 feet and up, but because of our general aviation capacity, which is 16 times more pilots licensed in Alaska than any other place in the country, the 3,000 to 5,000 [foot range] really doesn’t get covered as aggressively as it could be. We have areas like Prince William Sound which is a huge area, as well as up in the Arctic with regard to the North Slope which has a lot of activity especially now with OCS [Outer Continental Shelf] development.”
Whitaker said FAA has completed its baseline program of 33 ADS-B ground stations for Alaska and is adding eight more ADS-B ground stations.
“We do recognize that the terrain in Alaska presents unique challenges,” Whitaker told Begich.
Both Begich’s father, Rep. Nick Begich, and the man Begich defeated in 2008, Sen. Ted Stevens, died in airplane crashes in Alaska.
Begich is for up for re-election this November. The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rating puts the race at “Tilts Democratic.” Republicans will choose their candidate in an Aug. 19 primary. Former state Attorney General Dan Sullivan has raised nearly $2.7 million, far outpacing his GOP rivals. Begich has raised $4.6 million.
The Container covers the transportation community in Washington.
Tom Curry (@TCurry_Himself) writes for The Container. He has been a national affairs reporter and editor for nearly two decades, having covered elections, Supreme Court nominations, fiscal policy and the health care debate.