Mississippi's busiest passenger airport is down to one usable runway because a $13.3 million construction project is at a standstill, already eight months behind schedule.
Completion of runway surfacing at Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport was expected in June 2011, but a dispute with the contractor has halted the work.
Airport CEO Dirk Vanderleest said the contract with Rifenburg Construction Inc. of Durham, N.C., was terminated and is in arbitration over the quality of asphalt the company was using. Vanderleest said a request for bids is planned in April to complete the job.
Rifenburg attorney Mark Herbert said the airport used quality tests not covered in the contract. He said Rifenburg wanted arbitration so an independent party could determine whether the asphalt met contractual standards.
The closed runway has caused air traffic controllers to launch departures between arrivals instead of using one runway for planes coming in and the other for departing aircraft, said Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Arlene Salac.
"This situation causes a more complex operation, but FAA controllers are trained to accommodate these types of challenges and the operation remains safe," Salac said.
Another challenge is that the open runway has what is known as an ILS, an instrument landing system for poor weather conditions, only in one direction and a global positioning system must be used for planes landing from the other direction. Both systems help guide pilots, but some older commercial aircraft are only equipped with the ILS system, and can't use the GPS approach.
Vanderleest said there was one occasion in which a Southwest Airlines flight was diverted to New Orleans because of that, though the flight later returned to Jackson. Southwest did not immediately respond to a message.
Other major airlines — Delta and American — said the closed runway has not caused major problems for them so far.
The construction shutdown is having an impact on taxpayers. One of Mississippi's key Air National Guard units is based at the end of the closed runway, and pilots must taxi further in massive C-17 Globemasters, burning extra fuel. Guard officials said the added cost is relatively small because getting the big planes moving is what burns up large quantities of fuel, not keeping them rolling down the taxiway.
Vanderleest said the closed runway has been "more of an inconvenience than a problem," but he said its needs to be completed as soon as possible. The other runway needs resurfacing as well, but that can't be done until the first one is finished. He said the last overlay project was done in the 1990s and the life cycle of a runway is usually 10-15 years.
One of the goals of the runway construction project was to remove Yazoo clay, a common type of clay across central Mississippi that swells when saturated with water. It has long been known to cause cracks in home foundations and to create problems for roadways and other structures. The clay under the airport has caused a hump in the runway, airport officials said.
Vanderleest said the airport hopes to get back about $5.5 million already paid to the company with federal grant money.
Herbert, Rifenburg's attorney, said the asphalt passed all tests spelled out in the contract, but he said airport engineers "just decided they didn't like the way it looked and ran tests outside of the contract."
"We think that's unfortunate," he said.
Herbert said the company asked for arbitration so an independent party could determine if the asphalt met standards agreed to in the contract. He said the company had hoped to finish the project, but now doubts that will happen.
Rifenburg demanded arbitration Nov. 8 and was seeking $2.5 million in damages and expenses, according to airport records.
Records from the Airport Authority meeting in November said Hatch Mott MacDonald, the airport's engineering consultant and its subcontractor, Burns Cooley Dennis, Inc., delivered letters to the authority in November that said "Riffenburg has failed to comply with the requirements of the Contract."
The Jackson Municipal Airport Authority's Board of Commissioners voted to find Rifenburg in default on Nov. 21, according to records from that meeting. The board believed it would be faster to finish the runway by terminating the contract and finding someone else to finish it rather than waiting for arbitration to be completed.
"After careful and considerate deliberation, the board decided that the project had to move forward and the only way to do that was to terminate the contract," Vanderleest said.
Vanderleest said the airport is self-sufficient and doesn't take tax money from the city of Jackson. He said grant money was used to fund the runway project.
Vanderleest said he won't know exactly how much it will cost to complete the runway until he puts out a new request for bids in April. He hopes the runway will be finished by November, "in the worst case."
Salac said the estimated cost to complete the project is $12.2 million.
"The airport has the additional funding required to complete the project and hopes to recover damages from the original contractor or his bonding company," Salac said.