Court reverses FAA flight plans

Flight patterns out of Sky Harbor were changed in 2014 to allow commercial flights over residential and historical areas of Phoenix, without prior notice by the FAA. (Nicholas Serpa/DD)
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City officials and residents of downtown Phoenix won in court after a nearly three-year legal battle with the FAA over flight patterns a judge ruled harmful of residents’ quality of life.

On September 18, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration instituted new flight paths out of Sky Harbor International Airport.

These new flight paths took planes flying out of the airport directly over downtown Phoenix, over the top of Grand Avenue.

“There was zero warning,” said Steve Dreiseszun, a longtime resident of the FQ Story neighborhood, and one of the steering committee members for the Story Preservation Association. “It happened literally overnight.”

The flight paths were changed by the FAA as part of its Next Generation Air Transportation System plan, commonly referred to as NextGen.

The plan was designed to use new technology installed inside the planes to reduce fuel consumption and costs while improving the efficiency of the aircraft.

“One of the flight paths changes from “west flow,” where the planes take off toward the west and would generally fly along the salt river for 8 or 9 miles,” to a flight path that stretched over 2 miles of Phoenix, Dreiseszun said. “It brought these aircraft over neighborhoods that never had air traffic before.”

The change had a noticeable impact on residents. In 2015, noise monitors were installed along the flight path to measure the effect the change had on the surrounding area.

After analyzing the data collected from the monitors, city officials discovered the noise was affecting even the ability to be heard while talking.

“What we really determined, which was really important to us, is that these flights are actually interfering with speech and are certainly above the background noise level,” Deputy Aviation Director Chad Makovsky said at a Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee meeting in April, 2015.

For many in the community, the problem began when nobody was told about the issue.

“The FAA conducted no public process whatsoever,” said Dreiseszun.

The majority opinion attached to a ruling from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, handed down Tuesday, seemed to verify this idea, saying the FAA would not delay the flight plans to give residents any warning.

“The FAA did not share its environmental conclusions with airport management until the day before the routes were to go into effect,” the document said. “Management asked the FAA to delay implementation so the public could be informed. The FAA refused.”

Less than a month after the flight paths were implemented, a community meeting was held with the FAA, where residents laid out their complaints and concerns.

The FAA promised to look into the issue, and did the same several more times through 2014 and 2015, in letters and public meetings

“The FAA repeatedly communicated for months in a row that it was “was open to fixing the issue, and wanted to work with the city and others to find a solution,” according to the court ruling. “This pattern would certainly have led reasonable observers to think the FAA might fix the noise problem without being forced to do so by a court.”

However, after nearly a year of inaction by the FAA, city officials and residents decided to take the next step and filed a petition for a review of decision to reverse the new flight plans.

“The FAA violated federal law. They violated their own processes for instituting flight paths,” Dreiseszun said. “…and they were ordered to vacate the new routes.”

Despite the win, the city of Phoenix and the residents of the neighborhoods affected by the flight plans are still cautious.

“All of that’s on hold because the FAA has the ability to appeal,” said Dreiseszun. “They’re reviewing the ruling in detail and evaluating their next steps.”

FAA officials said the organization has not decided how to proceed, or whether to appeal the decision.

“We will carefully review the decision before deciding on our next steps,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said in a statement.

Contact the reporter at ckmccror@asu.edu.

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