Back in the late 1990s, Frankfurt Airport considered re-configuring its runway system to an Atlanta-style layout with four parallel runways. Read the story behind this plan below!
BACK IN TIME: THE NEED FOR A NEW RUNWAY
The idea of building an additional fourth runway for Frankfurt Airport was first proposed in 1997 by Lufthansa's then-CEO Jürgen Weber. The year prior, Frankfurt had handled over 38 million passengers and 386,000 aircraft movements. The runway layout allowed for 80 movements per hour, translating into about 420,000 annual movements. Thus, the capacity ceiling was in sight.
With nearby competitors Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris de Gaulle adding new runways and planning to increase their hourly capacity to a 120 aircraft movements, something needed to be done.
A proposed new runway would allow the number of hourly takeoffs and landings to grow by 50% to 120 per hour, translating into over 660,000 annual movements and doubling the number of annual passengers to over 72 million by 2015.
Frankfurt's last new runway, the north-south runway named "Startbahn West" (West Runway) had opened in 1984 and became the focus of intense protests by environmentalists, which even lasted three years after the runway had opened.
With this experience still in mind, the airport decided to closely involve residents of the surrounding communities in the planning process. A pact was made stipulating that the new runway could only be built if it was supported by the majority of nearby residents.
Fourteen different variations for increasing runway capacity were studied. The main options involved building a new runway northwest, northeast or south of the airport. Other options were to optimize the current runway system by using new procedures and technologies or by realigning the runway system.
Yet another option saw part of traffic being transferred to nearby Erbenheim Airport, a general aviation airport located 9 miles (15 km) west of Frankfurt Airport. The remaining options were different combinations of the above options.
THE ATLANTA MODEL
The most ambitious option involved building two new east-west oriented runways south of the existing airport, providing the airport with four parallel runways and allowing both simultaneous parallel takeoffs and landings. Under this option, the north-south runway would be closed. The layout was appropriately named the "Atlanta Model".
Depending on the mix of aircraft, this layout would allow up to a 150 aircraft movements an hour, as opposed to 120 with most other expansion options. Unsurprisingly, this was the option backed by the home carrier Lufthansa, which operates a global hub out of Frankfurt.
Although never explicitly stated at the time, the Atlanta Model would also have the additional benefit of enabling the airport to do a bit of "land grab", by creating a huge new midfield area, similar to what Schiphol did with the addition of the infamous Polderbaan.
The midfield area--nowadays largely developed with cargo and maintenance facilities--could eventually have been used to develop a large new passenger terminal complex for Lufthansa and its partner carriers.
The Atlanta Model was not without its issues. Until the majority of traffic would move to a future midfield terminal, taxiing times to/from the existing terminals would be long and aircraft would have to cross the existing parallel runways, raising the risk of runway incursions. Also, part of the then new Cargo-Sud (Cargo-South) complex would have to be torn down.
From a community point of view, the problem with the the Atlanta Model was that it would almost double the airport in size and 600 hectares (1500 acres) of city forest would need be to cut. Also, the number of people affected by aircraft noise would increase by almost half a million. This made the Atlanta Model politically unattainable, and thus, it disappeared off the table.
Three options remained: the construction of a single new runway north-east, north-west or south of the airport. The conclusion was that a runway north-west of the airport site would have the least impact on local residents and the surrounding environment.
The runway's location--north-east of the existing airport and squeezed against the autobahn A3--was quite ingenious in that the layout is extremely compact, thereby barely increasing the airport's footprint. Only a relatively small amount of trees would need to be cut down to build the runway. Also, the amount of additional people affected by noise would be limited to about 225,000.
As part of the concessions to get the buy-in from local communities, the runway would be used exclusively for landings, and only aircraft types up to the size of an Airbus A340 would be allowed to use the runway.
In December 2007, the plans were approved by the Hessian government (Hesse is the state where Frankfurt is situated) and construction on the runway started in early 2009. In October 2012, after 15 years of discussion, planning and construction, Frankfurt opened the fourth runway, providing the airport with a total of three east-west parallel runways and one north-south runway.
The things that could have been if they had gone with the "Atlanta Model"! What do you think? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
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I want to give a special thanks to Markus Grossbach and Annette Schmidt of the Fraport Archive for their help in preparing this article.
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Marnix (Max) Groot Founder of AirportHistory.org. Max is an airport development expert and historian.