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In the recent runway excursion at LGA, visibility was bad, and an airport ops vehicle called the tower to inform them of the excursion and that runway 13 was closed, and then that the airport was closed.

The tower is in charge during normal operations. Who has the authority to close a runway/airport? Is this codified somewhere?

This also applies on a smaller scale, as I've heard of such things as chunks of taxiway pavement going missing.

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  • $\begingroup$ I had the exact same question! $\endgroup$ – Peter Mar 6 '15 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ The guy with the rocket launcher $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Mar 11 '15 at 3:39
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Generally two groups have authority to close a runway (or airport) for an incident/emergency, and if either says it's closed, it's closed:

  1. The airport owner/operator/management.
    It's their facility, so if they say it's closed, it's closed.
    Specifically it's the persons authorized to issue NOTAMs for the airport who can close a runway (by issuing the NOTAM saying it's closed), but the chain of command for making this decision may vary from airport to airport.
    Runways may also be closed by airport administration without issuing a NOTAM (this happens frequently at Brookhaven airport (KHWV) - "Closed Runway" X's will be put out on the crosswind runway when the banner tow operators are set up for pick-up/release on that runway). Often there's a blanket NOTAM about "banner tow ops" or similar that sort-of covers this situation (basically "Expect strange things to be happening because the banner tow people are doing...whatever it is they do".)

  2. The control tower (if one exists).
    Whether or not they have the administrative authority to "close" a runway, they certainly have the practical authority to do so by denying anyone clearance to take off/land from it or to enter it, and by issuing NOTAMs indicating that a runway is closed/unusable for some reason.

At an airport like LaGuardia where you have both an FAA Control Tower and a robust airport operations/management group (The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey) a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or similar agreement is likely in place to ensure that everyone knows who is authorized to do what when, but in cases like this where an aircraft has a runway excursion the course of action is pretty obvious and nobody is going to want aircraft to be moving around on the ground until the situation is under control and safety can be assured.

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    $\begingroup$ Note that the above is specific to shutting down temporarily for an emergency or other situation. Permanently closing a (public-use) airport or runway has some other requirements & procedures, particularly if the airport has grant obligations for money received from the FAA (e.g. under the Airport Improvement Program). $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Mar 7 '15 at 5:18
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In addition to the categories listed above, pilots have the authority to close a runway. A braking action nil report will automatically close that runway until the airport operator is satisfied that the condition no longer exists.

Winter Ops AC Change

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I consider that the authority of the pilots. Technically they can also close the airport by skidding off the runway. And anyone could close it with a threat. But they aren't the ones actually making the move to close it. $\endgroup$ – fooot Mar 7 '15 at 23:16
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This is kind of a gray area, but there is a procedure...

Theoretically, the way a runway is closed is that the airport or airfield operator notifies, in writing, the FAA thirty days ahead of time that a publicly-accessible runway will be closed. The FAA then issues a NOTAM about the closure and the airport puts big X's on the runway at either end. The runway is then closed.

In the event of accident, you obviously cannot "close" a runway this way. The best you can do is warn pilots off it. Since there is no way to "close" a runway on a short-term basis, what happens is that they "close" the entire airport, which is what happened at La Guardia. There is no NOTAM or forewarning during the initial response, so small aircraft can potentially still arrive and they have to be warned off.

Unfortunately, a lot of police and firemen do not understand this, so they try to "close" a runway just by ordering the tower to close it. Often, they do not even do this; they just rush onto the tarmac without even waiting to get permission or calling anyone. Obviously this creates incredibly dangerous situations. The tower (if there is one) reacts to this irregular action by notifying ATC and making constant do-not-land-here warnings on the common channel(s). If there is no tower, hopefully there are people on the ground with radios who do the same thing.

Just as an example of how dangerous this can become: once I was at an airfield with no tower and an aircraft landed short in the trees, getting hung up in some branches. A bunch of state police cars and fire engines literally drove down the runway to get to him like it was a road or something. The danger here is that many smaller aircraft or ultralights (etc) may not have (working) radios or may be on the wrong frequency so they have no idea what is happening. They could have just landed on one of the cop cars and blown up killing everybody. After it happened we called the police and told them how to drive on side of the airfield (not down the runway !!!) and provided them with emergency route maps, but at a certain level it is whistling in the dark, because most emergency personnel do not read these materials.

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    $\begingroup$ However, large airports are not allowed to operate without having available a full emergency response service. If they are all busy attending to a crashed aircraft, the airport legally cannot authorise another aircraft movement. So whilst technically the rescue service may not have the authority to close it down (I'm not certain of the formalities), in reality they can tell the tower that the airport is closed, like they did at LGA this week. $\endgroup$ – Ben Mar 7 '15 at 3:06
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    $\begingroup$ I've had the "pleasure" of seeing a few airport emergency responses, and at no time did the fire crew "rush onto the tarmac without even waiting to get permission or calling anyone" - EVERY move by the fire crew on movement areas was coordinated with the tower & the rescue equipment requested & was cleared for each move they wanted to make. Things may be different at Uncontrolled Podunk Municipal with volunteer firefighters responding, but at a towered field with dedicated ARFF teams (such as LGA) it is nowhere near as chaotic as you make it out to be. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Mar 7 '15 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ (for that matter even if the local fire department goes barreling onto the runway at Uncontrolled Podunk Municipal surely pilots are making a proper overhead pass before entering the pattern as recommended in the AIM, and keeping a careful eye on the field on downwind/base/final so they'd notice a big ol' honkin fire engine on the runway (or perhaps the thing that motivated them to show up to begin with). We're not all as oblivious as a United States Senator – at least I hope not!) $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Mar 7 '15 at 4:06
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    $\begingroup$ "The tower (if there is one) reacts to this irregular action by notifying ATC" the tower notifies ATC? What is the tower if not ATC? $\endgroup$ – raptortech97 Mar 7 '15 at 5:11
  • $\begingroup$ @raptortech97 By "ATC" in this context I am referring to non-local control such as ARTCCs and TRACONS. $\endgroup$ – Tyler Durden Mar 7 '15 at 5:42

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