Airports are essential nodes to national and international commerce. As shown in the above two graphs, it is also clear that these transportation facilities also generate noise. Both airports, O’Hare International and Phoenix Sky Harbor, have recently had their flight tracks altered and now those changes impact different neighbors. The below two articles show different approaches by the local denizens, by the airport proprietor and by the FAA.
The predicates to the ORD dispute involve both the City’s capital improvement project called the O’Hare Modernization Program and the FAA’s implementation of the NextGen technology. The conjoint impact of those two actions was an increase in the noise experienced by some of the residents, above their prior impacts.
In the first case, the City of Chicago, the proprietor of ORD, and in particular the Mayor, listened to the people who live near the airport. It is also notable that the local citizens took an approach of developing alternative solutions after beginning to carefully collect technical research about the new noise impact. It is far from a complete process, but now, “Chicago is asking the Federal Aviation Administration to delay action that would cause ‘irreparable damage’ to diagonal runways slated for closure at O’Hare International Airport, officials said Monday,” according to Jon Hilkevitch, the Tribune’s excellent transportation reporter.
That is a significant step in two dimensions. First, by keeping the diagonal runways, the Chicago Department of Aviation preserves the option to use these two to disperse the noise. ORD’s management is willing to explore options and the community is being proactive in defining alternatives. Second, by deferring the destruction of 14R and 14L, the City is retaining the capacity of these two existing runways. With the continued existence of them, the need to expand may be delayed.
With this significant policy action, the City’s and FAA’s hearings on the existing noise issues will be able to go forward and could possibly result in immediate implementation of short and long term solutions.
The relief, so desired by the neighbors, may be realized sooner rather than later.
Phoenix is slightly different. The airport did not create a change to its physical plant. The primary catalyst of complaints was the FAA’s initiation of new air traffic control procedures available under the technology, called NextGen. That is a national FAA program which is intended to increase capacity at airports and in the National Airspace System. As to PHX, NextGen is intended to improve efficiency and to enhance the environmental performance at this airport.
The design and implementation of airspace architecture is complicated and communicating these arcane actions is difficult. The reports about the FAA’s process of explaining the intended changes are mixed with the federal agency asserting that it attempted to best communicate the new flight pattern, while the City of Phoenix, PHX and the citizens have expressed their disappointment with these efforts to reach a meaningful dialogue. Since these are both subjective opinions, the adage, that perceptions are real to person(s) expressing them, applies here.
As announced in the below Phoenix New Times, the City of Phoenix has “finally” filed a lawsuit against the FAA. The complaint alleges that the “the Federal Aviation Administration [has] unilaterally impos[ed] flight path changes at Sky Harbor International Airport last September without due process. The changes have affected thousands of Valley residents and were made without consulting the city or its aviation department.” The City issued a press release filled with frustration.
Their motivation is clearly that they want a court to order the FAA to stop flying its NextGen procedures. Those enhancements of safety, efficiency and the environment include Airport Surface Detection Equipment — Model X (ASDE-X), Optimized Profile Descent (OPD), Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures, basic rerouting, and Time Based Flow Management (TBFM). OPD and PBN are systems which guide flights more precisely over their intended patterns—minimizing the “swath” of the noise imposition, but also concentrating it.
Just the recitation of the procedures at issue should make it clear that a Federal District Judge will have to learn the details of these technical aspects. While reviewing the record of the FAA’s “communications” with the City, PHX and the neighbors may be something with which the Judge is familiar. However, the fashioning of an order to the FAA will be difficult if he finds for the City. For example, if the jurist decides for the plaintiffs, he could compel the FAA to return to its previous ATC patterns and that would be an easy judgment to write. At the same time, such a mandate to return to the before NextGen architecture might:
- Decrease the capacity of PHX and harm its economy.
- Return the corridors to the old pattern and inflict noise on those communities, and
- Diminish the savings of$14.7 million per year of fuel costs and reduction of the carbon footprint by 51,000 tons per year.
Those are points which the US government will likely make in the case.
One can infer that the City’s real goal in this litigation is to find a win/win alternative, something between the old and the new tracks. Divining such a solution is not among the skill sets of most federal district judges. Each alternative has complex ramifications like the above mentioned three consequences. For example, on a micro basis, selecting one flight pattern may favor those impacted by NextGen, while moving the noise to another community.
Such multivariate, complex solutions, based on acoustics, aircraft performance, navigational capabilities, particulate matter, weather and SAFETY, will require massive submissions by experts on both sides of the case and lengthy testimony/cross examinations. Then the judge will require substantial time to determine what may be decided as a matter of law, not equity. N.B. judges are very uncomfortable imposing their judgment over the FAA about safety.
If the district court orders the FAA to abandon the NextGen benefits at PHX and if it issues a mandate for the appropriate consultation procedure, the US will be compelled to appeal the decision and that will further lengthen the process. Such a decision would be cited by other potential petitioners in asserting that the FAA must roll back the local NextGen ATC procedures. Such a precedent would endanger the national benefits of NextGen. That is to say, litigation probably means YEARS before an acceptable final solution is found by the court(s).
Litigation was the City of Phoenix’s last choice and maybe the case will be moved by the Judge to mediation. The City of Chicago has made a significant first step toward a win/win solution, although there are many hurdles over which all must navigate before a final solution is reached.