If there is one thing I have learned during my time in aviation, it is that sometimes you learn the most when you research aspects of the industry that you generally feel aren’t "relevant" to you. Pilots can learn so much from Air Traffic Controllers, Airport Operations can learn so much from MRO facilities, and the list continues on. Taking the time to look at daily happenings at airports, whether from a flight, operations, maintenance, administrative, or another perspective can help you gain valuable insight to further your career and enrich your experiences.
Just in the way that airport operations personnel could benefit from learning how to fly, pilots could also benefit with learning some basics of how airports are run and which regulations they must adhere to. It should be no surprise that airports have their own special section of the Federal Aviation Regulations that they must follow, and that is 14 CFR Part 139. In this article I would like to give an overview of the main parts of Part 139 so that pilots can better understand why things work the way they do at airports.
Although Part 139 is the baseline for airport certification, not every airport in the U.S. has to follow it. The regulations are specifically for airports that serve scheduled and unscheduled air carrier aircraft with more than 30 seats, serve scheduled air carrier operations in aircraft with more than 9 seats but less than 31 seats, and that the FAA Administrator requires to have a certificate.
The Airport Certification Manual (ACM)
Perhaps the most vital piece of Part 139 compliance is the Airport Certification Manual. This is a document that outlines exactly how an airport will conduct their operations to comply with Part 139. The airport operator writes the ACM, and then every single page is reviewed and signed by the FAA inspector assigned to that airport. If approved, the airport is then issued an Airport Operating Certificate (AOC) which allows flight operations to proceed legally.
Aircraft Rescue and Firefighting
Often referred to as simply "ARFF," aircraft rescue and firefighting is a major component of airport operations because they have constantly to be ready for any aircraft emergencies. The airport’s "ARFF Index" (designated by letters A-E) is dependent on the longest air carrier aircraft that serves the airport with five or more average daily departures. The ARFF personnel and equipment must be able to properly handle the aircraft type, and they must do a drill where they successfully reach the midpoint of the furthest runway from their station within 3 minutes of being alerted to an accident.
Airport Inspections and Maintenance
There are four types of inspections that airports are required to do under Part 139. These are regularly scheduled, continuous, periodic, and special inspections. Airport operations personnel must physically drive or walk around the airfield, carefully inspecting several key features. These include signage, markings, pavement condition, lighting, FOD (foreign object debris), wildlife, and many others. Regularly scheduled inspections can happen several times a day, and the airport operator outlines in the ACM just how many they are required to do.
Wildlife Hazard Management
Unfortunately, airports can quickly become a very dangerous place for pilots when birds or wildlife are in the area. Just look at Sully! Part 139 airports are required to have a wildlife management plan in place, to help mitigate and eliminate the natural hazards that animals can create. These programs are designed to focus not only on scaring away wildlife already on the airfield, but to move their habitat outside of the security fence so they are less likely to be there to begin with.
Airport Emergency Plan (AEP)
As mentioned before, airports must always be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Thus, a Part 139 airport must submit an airport emergency plan to their FAA inspector in addition to the ACM. This document is a handbook on what exactly should happen in case of an emergency. All possible scenarios should be covered, including terrorism, fuel farm fires, natural disasters, and of course aircraft accidents. FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-31C, Airport Emergency Plan, provides guidance in meeting the requirements for the plan.
Snow and Ice Control Plan (SICP)
Depending on the airport, snow and ice may be a major problem that has to be dealt with every year. Keeping the airport safe and open is the biggest concern during a snow event, so airports are required to submit a plan for how they will tackle the runway contaminate. This plan must include staffing expectations, equipment usage, priority areas that will be plowed first, and much more. During this time they must also monitor the conditions and let pilots know how what to expect when landing.
Part 139 is very clear about which records must be kept on site and for how long. Most records, including inspection reports, NOTAMs, incident and accident reports, and fueling inspections are required to be kept for 12 calendar months. Records for the training of personnel who operate in the movement area (the portion of the airfield controlled by ATC) are required to be kept for 24 calendar months.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Part 139 Airport operations, but I hope that this broad overview helps you to understand the daily happenings at an airport at least a little better. There is more than meets the eye, and airports have to constantly work to stay on top of every aspect of their operation. If you’re curious about what else Part 139 covers, bring out your FAR AIM and take a look! You will definitely learn something you did not know before.