Having only one working runway at Metro Airport at present has proven more problematic than expected twice in the past month.
The airport has two runways for commercial flights, but one was closed in January for upgrades and maintenance and won’t reopen until the late summer. In the time it’s been closed, passengers flying into and out of Baton Rouge have twice experienced flight delays and diversions because of isolated problems with the runway.
A small corporate jet rolled into the muddy grass next to the working runway Tuesday night after experiencing hydraulic and brake failure. An estimated 200 passengers on planes to Baton Rouge that night had their flights diverted to New Orleans or Lafayette, and then were driven back to the capital city.
The plane was pulled from the mud overnight, and all of the airport’s operations were back to normal by Wednesday morning. Last month, the lights on the only operating runway went out one night and forced flight cancellations for between 500 and 600 passengers.
Airport spokesman Jim Caldwell said neither the lights going out nor a plane rolling into the mud are common occurrences, calling it “just bad luck” that both would happen when the airport’s other runway is under construction.
He said planes rolling into grass are normally the result of mechanical problems, as was the case on Tuesday, or are the result of weather conditions.
“You can never have both runways open indefinitely,” he said about the need for maintenance. “It’s just unfortunate that these two things have happened. When we had one of the runways closed for resurfacing a number of years back, essentially nothing occurred during that time period.”
Caldwell said airport officials believe the streak of bad luck has run its course and don’t expect further problems.
Metro Councilman and Airport Commissioner Trae Welch said the airport is not to blame for the plane rolling into the mud. He said the lights going out recently is the only problem he can recall in his 25 years of being a pilot and flying into and out of Baton Rouge.
“You have an incident that occurs like a pilot running off the side of the runway, the airport can’t prevent things like that,” Welch said. “... Whatever control we did have, we were immediately on the spot.”
The Baton Rouge airport saw more than 789,000 passengers in 2014, and is the second-largest airport in the state by volume. The airport technically has a third runway, but it’s only meant for general aviation and not commercial carriers.
Both the much-larger Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and the much-smaller Lafayette Regional Airport also have two runways for commercial flights.
The number of passengers who travel through the Louis Armstrong International Airport is more than 12 times the number who stop in Baton Rouge. The New Orleans airport saw more than 9.7 million passengers in 2014.
In New Orleans, one runway runs east-west and the other spans north-south. The runways have been closed in the past — for maintenance in 2005 and for construction in 2001 — but a spokeswoman for the airport declined to provide details on how the closures affected passengers or airport operations.
The smaller Lafayette airport saw around half a million passengers in 2014. The airport’s new director Steven Picou said they closely monitor weather patterns to determine which runway to use, but that sometimes closing a runway is unavoidable.
“Runways are like roadways, they have to have maintenance done to them,” Picou said.
The upgrades to the closed runway in Baton Rouge will increase usable space available for pilots, which had been limited by the placement of a facility now demolished.