KAILUA-KONA, Hawai‘i — More than two dozen flights were impacted by the closure of Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole on Monday afternoon after the discovery of cracks in the runway.
“When the governor’s phone blows up in the middle of the afternoon, you know something is happening,” said Gov. Josh Green at a press conference on Tuesday. “We do have a problem and it is being remedied. We had a defect, a hole in the asphalt on the runway. Obviously, it needed to be cared for instantaneously because safety is everything.”
Department of Transportation Director Ed Sniffen provided a timeline on the discovery and eventual repair to the impacted portion of the airport’s only runway.
Monday at 8 a.m., DOT staff identified a crack in the runway about 8 inches long and 2 inches wide. By 11 a.m., they looked at it again to make sure things didn’t progress and it was about the same size.
“But by 2:30 it had accelerated in degradation tremendously, turning into a 3-foot hole. DOT issued a notice to airlines telling them to be careful because of the fault in the runway,” Sniffen said.
“We sent out our staff to inspect the area to determine whether or not we keep it open or close it. Closing a runway, especially in Kona, is a tremendous decision. We understand the impacts it’s going to have on travel, passengers, airlines and cargo.”
When DOT staff inspected the area and determined the accelerated degradation was a concern, and the potential for other portions of the runway following suit, the decision was made to shut down the airport.
At 4:20 p.m. the runway was shut down to all operations, flights in and out were either canceled or rerouted.
“We determined the scope of work because we were determined to fix it that night,” Sniffen said.
The state contacted the contractor, Grace Pacific, who sent crews from O‘ahu through Lihu‘e, Kaua‘i, to Hilo. The crew then drove to Kona to make sure they could start cutting the areas identified. They also had to bring in their mill from Kohala to complete repairs.
“They went through tremendous lengths to ensure we got the resources we needed to get this fix done,” Sniffen said.
Workers started cutting the asphalt around 9 p.m., and by 11:30 p.m. started milling the area, the process of removing the top surface layer of the existing asphalt pavement.
Paving began by 1 a.m. Tuesday, and by 2:30 they finished the paving operation and started looking at other areas that may be of concern. They subsequently found another 3-foot by 10-foot area they felt needed to be fixed in order to ensure there weren’t any other faults in the runway.
By 3:30 a.m. the work was complete and the runway was cleared of all debris by 4:30. a.m. By 5 a.m.. notice was sent to the airlines that flights would resume by 6 a.m. Tuesday.
“This comes right on the verge of pushing out our $120 million construction project, reconstructing the entire 11,000 foot runway, starting August or September this year. It will take a couple of years to complete,” Sniffen said.
“The timing was unfortunate, but we are happy we made the decision to fix it rather than pushing it to potential safety issues for our airlines. We are comfortable that this repair will last us through the construction project.”
Grace Pacific was the chosen contractor because there was not another one in the area who had all the materials and machinery to quickly complete the job.
“The placement where the defect occurred was smack-dab in the middle of the runway,” Green said. “You need 6,500 feet to safely land airplanes. We can never take any risks in this space. Had the defect occurred 3,000 feet down the way, we probably wouldn’t have had any delays. We are grateful that there was no danger and particularly glad they could get out to fix it that night.”
Green said the airport is an older facility and it needs support.
“Our commitment to infrastructure is enormous. We have inherited over the years some significant projects that have to be upgraded. Without a doubt, this is one of them. $120 million is going into Kona Airport to make sure we have a facility for the future that’s totally safe,” he said.
There were a total of 26 flights impacted — nine transpacific and 17 interisland flights, and 160 people who were on flights diverted from the mainland to O‘ahu and Maui were put up in hotels for the night. Others were left to their own resources.
Sniffen said other repairs were going to take place between midnight Tuesday and 3 a.m. Wednesday.
“There is cracking in the area, not as concerning as what we fixed Monday night, but in order that we are comfortable this paving will last us through the construction period, they will repair this area as well so it doesn’t become a problem in the future,” Sniffen said.
The cracks and hole in the runway were blamed on recent weather.
“One of the things we are seeing as we are having deluges from time to time is some infrastructures are beginning to fail. When you get rain in Kona, you don’t get a lot,” Green said.
“You get maybe 13 inches per year, but sometimes when it comes 2 to 3 inches slamming in, there is no way for it to drain off and we in Kona over the years are always waiting for that annual super storm. And when that happens we worry about this.”
Sniffen explained, “This is a weather event that caused this. When we started cutting, we found layers of water that infiltrated the pavement that cause the sheering. From our perspective, it was unfortunate that flights were impacted, that peoples’ travel were impacted and that some people incurred additional cost. But this is not unlike any other weather event that potentially blocks visibility of an airport and doesn’t allow an airplane to land.”
Sniffen said the runway is about 30 years old and ready to be replaced.
“We are pushing a bunch of money into these infrastructure adjustments to ensure we don’t have to worry about this for years to come,” he said.
Green said Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg will be coming to the state next month to look at infrastructure needs.
“We will be making our case to him about how the federal government can support Hawai‘i going forward,” he said.
Source: The Garden Island