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Keeping airport runways clear a full-time job

By Justin Boron

A single 45-foot pine tree is holding its ground in the southwestern corner of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. But like many of the trees that surround the constant touch-and-go of jets on the runway, it has outgrown its welcome.

Peter Ferguson, the aviation maintenance director, said the height, placement, and health of trees are major concerns for the aviation maintenance department, which landscapes and keeps up the runway conditions at the 4,700-acre airport.

Not apparent through the view of an airplane's passenger porthole, landscaping plays a large role in safety and security, he said.

The 161-person department with an annual budget of about $20 million carries out several subtle tasks that add up to smooth takeoffs and landings, Ferguson said.

One of those duties is tree maintenance.

While a sprawling oak may be unassuming at the park, it is a clear hazard at the airport, Ferguson said.

Overgrown trees are concern enough to receive regular inspections from the Federal Aviation Administration because they impede the clearance or vision of pilots on approach, said Paul Turk, a spokesman for the agency.

The discerning eye can pick out the ones that need to go right away.

For Ferguson, a drive along the perimeter of the airport can work like a high school athletic tryouts, with him pointing at which trees will likely get the cut next.

But they don't necessarily have to be destroyed.

With the right kind of equipment, pretty much any tree can be moved, said Bruce Bongarten, a professor and associate dean for the Warnell School of Forest Resources at the University of Georgia.

A tractor with four spade shaped shovels can dig up maintain the entire root structure without damaging the tree, said Cheryl Kortemeier, director of communication for Trees Atlanta, a non-profit conservation organization.

"It's kind of a tricky procedure," she said.

It can also be expensive too. Costs for transplanting a tree can start at $350 a piece, Kortemeier said.

Also important to airport safety are the strips of grass between the runways, which are cut nightly during spring and summer season, Ferguson said.

Keeping the blades below the yellow and red signs directing taxi and runway traffic is crucial, he said.

The frequent mows also keep the grass from seeding and becoming an attraction to birds who risk flying to the airport and being sucked up by engines, Ferguson said.

In spite of the efforts to curb the presence of birds, they come anyway, unhindered by the chain link fences surrounding the airport, he said.

"Birds are a major issue at any airport," Ferguson said.