FAA, city, neighborhoods, agree to flight path reversals

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Phoenix communities won a major lawsuit in August against the FAA for changing flight paths without notifying residents. (Nicholas Serpa/DD)

The Federal Aviation Administration and the city of Phoenix reached an agreement Thursday to roll back controversial flight paths which took Sky Harbor flights directly over several historic downtown neighborhoods.

The memorandum, an agreement between the FAA, city officials and representatives from several neighborhood associations, would be implemented in two steps, officials said.

Step One: Create temporary western departure procedures which resemble those made before September 18, 2014. These flight plans will be developed manually by traffic controllers at the Phoenix airport, with community feedback required to implement them.

Step Two: Replace the flight paths designed in step one with a permanent new set of flight paths drawn using satellite-based data. The FAA will come back to the downtown Phoenix community for feedback on the permanent flight plans as well.

The tentative agreement is not final, and must be approved by a court before any actions can be taken. Barring any issues in the courtroom, the new flight plans are expected to be implemented in April, according to a release by the Story Preservation Association.

“The historic neighborhoods support this agreement as the best available means for returning the western departure flight paths to their historic routes as expeditiously as possible,” a press release on the memorandum said.

This move brings an end to more than three years of conflict between residents and the FAA.

On Sept. 18, 2014, federal regulators instituted new flight paths out of Sky Harbor International Airport that passed directly over the top of Grand Avenue and several residential neighborhoods.

“There was zero warning,” Steve Dreiseszun said in a previous Downtown Devil article. Dreiseszun is 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 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 affected residents’ 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.

Two lawsuits were brought against the FAA, one from the city and one from the neighborhoods, accusing the federal agency of failing to discuss the plans with any city official with the authority to authorize the change and failing to properly inform the community of them

When the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August 2017 the flight paths would have to be reversed, activists were pleased.

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

The six month delay between the ruling and implementation is a necessary one to protect fliers, said officials with the city of Phoenix in a statement.

“The FAA has said an outright canceling of the September 2014 procedures would increase airport delays and compromise safety,” the statement said. “As a result, all sides negotiated a plan that would mitigate noise, without the above concerns.”

Contact the reporter at ckmccror@asu.edu.

Correction: December 2, 2017

An earlier version of this story stated the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on the lawsuit in August. The Court actually granted the FAA an extension to deal with their ruling in August. They decided the case in August. The story has been updated to reflect this.

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