UK National Airport Decision—should the US follow? Your Response?

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Imagine a New York Times headline which announces “FAA decides location of the NY/NJ/CT Airport for the future.” That’s what is denoted by the below article’s caption; a national commission made the strategic decision of where the UK’s future airport capacity will be built. [Other countries prefer to follow the English view of centralized planning.] Is such a process better or worse than the US’ locally initiated/sponsored policy?

The political pushback in the UK is expected and there are still hurdles yet to be cleared. The process includes local/political input, environmental assessment, economic analyses and airspace efficiency, as would a US local sponsored, FAA NEPA review, but the decision where the runway will be located is made by the national government. The political science theory is that centralized planning assures an optimal solution for the Kingdom.

The US faces some major strategic decisions about airfield capacity—the above-mentioned Tri State future capacity, the Los Angeles basin’s need for aviation growth but already high density real estate and airspace, Chicago’s preferred solution of O’Hare runway expansion with already congested (maxed out?) airspace, etc. The selection of an optimal solution or perhaps the failure to reserve land/air traffic capacity in a timely fashion involves NATIONAL considerations. The sponsors, which under the US legal/regulatory practices/policy must take the first step, have the tendency to have local politics influence their preferred option. Those choices may not optimize the positioning of this critical aviation capacity from a federal perspective.

Under US law (statutory and judicial precedents on inverse noise liability) the federal government may not direct where a runway or airport should be located. In the FAA’s assessment/statement, it may include federal factors in its exercise of environmental protection, but its judgment is limited to the alternatives defined by the sponsor’s proposed site. That decisional standard does not necessarily allow an optimal national solution.

The US’s future role in global aviation depends on its ability to maintain its aviation nodes to the global economy. The vast expanse, which has defined America’s boundaries, is increasingly occupied, particularly in the land masses surrounding our population centers. The selection of the next generation of air links involves very difficult airspace, environmental, economic and political decisions. As with many historic national issues, democracy has made great decisions even though the battles have been brutal.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Is that a history of decisions which creates confidence that the allocation of scarce airspace/land resources will be well made?
  • Will the collective judgments of all of the relevant local politicians result in an optimal set of airport location decisions as viewed on a national basis?
  • Or is it an appropriate time to consider the national planning model which the UK and other nations use?
  • If the answer to the previous question affirmative, is the FAA the best organization to make such a call?
    • The FAA has not exercised such decisional powers in the past.
    • Does that suggest that it needs more analytical resources to take the initiative?
    • Would a Blue Panel Commission with its own staff and the FAA’s support be a good option?
  • On the contrary, one of the hallmarks of the US process, as contentious, litigious and lengthy as they have been, is that ultimately the local community begrudgingly “have accepted” the decision (compared to the prolonged post development wars which the denizens of LHR, NRT, FRA, etc. have waged). Does the US local sponsor create enough local consensus, because the process is locally based, to make it politically preferable?
  • Any change in US policy would require Congressional action; is that feasible given the current inability of those bodies to make hard decisions?
    • Would the underlying noise liability attached to a federal decision deter Congress reliance on a national decisional body?
  • Are there any options, short of such a revolutionary, transformational change that would achieve the same goal?
  • Could Congress draft language which raises the importance of the national consequence/impact of a local airport decision?

The US has not yet reached a precipice of airport capacity, thus there is time to examine options. It appears timely to debate what process might assure that our nation’s airports remain efficient links to the global. The time is now to begin a discussion of the alternative.



ARTICLE: Britain to decide on new Heathrow runway by end of year

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