Phoenix parties and FAA offer a new win/win NextGen option?

Steve Dreiseszun
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Phoenix, FAA Propose Plans to Lessen Aircraft Noise

Court of Appeals sends FAA message

FAA and PHX submit a proposed process- FAA allow “real participation?

The implementation of NextGen on a tight schedule is a major goal for the FAA. The premise of spending billions on this important upgrading of the ATC system was based on the improvement in safety, major macro improvement to the environment, increased efficiency of the airways and cost savings for the users. Deferral of installation of these flight patterns would delay the benefits.

Congress reinforced this need for urgency by enacting § 213(c)(1) of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which provided an expedited environmental review for NextGen implementation. Congress included qualifiers on the use of this quicker process:

Navigation performance and area navigation procedures developed, certified, published, or implemented under this section shall be presumed to be covered by a categorical exclusion (as defined in section 1508.4 of title 40, Code of Federal Regulations) under chapter 3 of FAA Order 1050.1E unless the Administrator determines that extraordinary circumstances exist with respect to the procedure.

phoenix-airport NG ATC


By its opinion in City of Phoenix v. FAA (D.C. Cir No. 15-1158) (August 28, 2017) the Judges curbed that enthusiasm by finding that the FAA failed to meet the predicates to the §213 (c)(3) process. Lessons from that judicial critique included the following:

  • If the FAA intends to continue to collaborate, it cannot “implement” the subject action. IMPLEMENT = FINAL ORDER; further collaboration [a good thing] defers the deadline for filing a petition for review.
  • Educate, explain and publicize. The Court clearly found fault with the FAA’s effort in PHX. The next NextGen project should aggressively address those steps with which the court criticized. {Why go beyond giving notice? Because SO MUCH is at stake for the Nation’s ATC. The consequences of FAILURE are too great.}
  • NextGen and almost all of what the ATO does is not understood by the public. Human perception of sound is the most subjective of our senses. Any change, if unexpected, will be heard as bad. Educating the people to be impacted with honest, understandable information may not win over the people to be impacted; such an outreach MAY mitigate the reaction. Trying to hide a new ATC flight path will not fool anyone.
  • The operations of an ATC system are not intuitive; the average citizen has no understanding of the demands and pressures of controlling an aircraft. The architecture of flight patterns is even more obtuse. The acumen needed to design a path which is safe, efficient and environmentally sound is found in advanced spatial calculus with multivariate collateral algorithms
  • This may be a BIG hint that the use of the categorical exclusion may have limited applicability for future NextGen implementations. The Profusion of negative reactions to these local ATC routes and the Publicity attendant to those responses have increased the likelihood that controversy will precede future NextGen implementation.
  • Phoenix from Ashes

From the ashes of the Phoenix decision, the FAA appears to have begun to rebuild its ability, if not authority, to design a new AT procedure which both captures its safety/efficiency goals while integrating its patterns with neighborhood needs. The PHX situation did not have to return to square #1; so, the FAA, the airport (City of Phoenix) and the filing historic neighborhood associations have agreed to a process by which they plan to move forward.

The FAA did not budge from its initial position that an outright canceling of the September 2014 procedures would increase airport delays and compromise safety. To come to patterns which are mutually agreeable, they have submitted a proposed process to the court for its approval.
The plan has two steps:

“Step One: The FAA, with support from the City, would engage in community outreach while creating temporary departure procedures to the west, approximating the pre-2014 routes. These procedures are planned to be used starting in April 2018.

Step Two: After Step One is complete, the FAA would develop new satellite-based procedures for the western departures and consider feedback on procedures throughout the Phoenix area. They would engage in community outreach throughout this process.”

The lead activist of the historic neighborhoods Steve Dreiseszun said he saw the agreement with the FAA as a victory for neighborhood groups. “‘NextGen’ doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” he said. “In other places they have maintained the legacy flight routes while still enjoying these satellite-based efficiencies.” Dreiseszun aptly pointed out the change which the Court sought—real community participation. “We didn’t have any at all, but now the public can be involved.”

community meeting

Assuming that the Court accepts this proposal, the FAA-community meetings would begin in February, 2018. While this is clearly a positive development, the willingness of the FAA representatives to listen will be proof that the Phoenix opinion has been internalized. More importantly, if the team of government experts show that this is not a Zero Sum exercise and can translate local sensitivities to adjustments in their optimal NextGen solutions. One way to insure that the FAA listens is to propose alternatives which both meet the community’s goals and the FAA’s safety/efficiency standards. It’s not intuitive; option definitions benefit from “architects” who know the science and art of ATC design. 

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