The battle over PHX’s airspace will be better resolved by Subject Matter Experts than Judges

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The City of Phoenix and related communities are considering litigation to get a court to force the FAA to redesign the airspace surrounding the PHX airport. Even if the strictures of the National Environmental Policy Act are a successful basis of litigation, the US District Court is, at best, most likely to remand to the FAA to revise its analysis of the new routes’ impact.

A primer on the art and science of ATC: Air Traffic Control design is a complex matter. It involves a fairly subjective simultaneous solution of variables of safety, efficiency, limits of the navigation’s technology and the impact of flights on the ground. The measures of these factors are not always capable of precise quantification. The language of the design of the architecture is obtuse, verging on a patois, with odd connotations assigned to ordinary words. The practitioners of this art/science are more likely to accept the ideas of others with the same experience.

In the context of a federal district court, the judges have historically given great deference to the FAA. Most of the jurists are uncomfortable interjecting their view of what a safe, efficient, technically supportable and environmentally balanced solution might look like as opposed to the selection of the agency. The FAA has a mission with complex, even conflicting mandates. Under such circumstances and with the heavy procedural orientation of NEPA, the most likely outcome of suing the FAA is an order that the agency should reconsider its design of the departure and arrival tracks.

When the ball is “volleyed” back to the FAA by a federal judge, the PHX civic parties would be well advised to work with someone who has the knowledge and credibility to propose alternatives. If left to their own devices, the ATC “architects” will likely make cosmetic changes to the original proposal.  With the benefit of a 3rd party expert, the initial solution will not be challenged. With someone who understands the potential created by NextGen, can create alternative, efficient design of the patterns, can assure that the highest levels of safety will be maintained and [this is a critical difference] will be sensitive to the impacts on the ground.

It is that last aspect which an independent consultant provides the greatest advantage. Before assessing alternatives, the representative of the community audits the nature of the neighborhoods. With such knowledge and sensitivity, it is far more likely to find a win/win alternative.

Even more so, a community would be well advised to engage such ATC talent BEFORE litigation is fully engaged. The same expertise, before accusations are made, is more likely to be persuasive. Once the lines are drawn by a petition, it is filed and discovery begins, then the FAA and/or Department of Justice lawyers take control of the proceeding. Without the legal oversight, the internal technical ATC folks are more likely to listen, to see the benefits of compromise. Working collaboratively, a solution can be achieved more expeditiously.

Balancing the elements of ATC architecture is difficult. Defining a tight arrival bend of a runway approach to avoid a sensitive community may raise valid safety concerns by controllers. Elongating the same pattern to points on the map, which do not have conflicting uses on the ground, may diminish the flights’ efficiency and thus would not pose a preferable alternative. An expert may be able to define a route with the original bend, but holding the plane higher until past the sensitive community. The judgment to discern such an option requires years of work in the ATC design practice. Although the FAA has devoted considerable time to the plan which has caused such problems, a consultant will be more able to create an offer which is acceptable to the original design team and which avoids the conflict with ground uses. One of the aspects of such consultant’s work, which would be most attractive to the civil servants, is that the consultant can do all of the work needed to design and implement their alternative.

Courts can and should be a choice of last resort. The likely, best outcome of challenging the FAA’s ATC plan for PHX is delay, but once the second iteration is mandated, the original designers will not be particularly inclined to or receptive to a route system which treated the community’s sensitivities as equals.

Eyes, which see both the needs of the neighborhoods and the goals of the FAA, will be better prepared to draw the lines which are mutually advantageous.

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