Troubled Skies

James Careless reports on how a Phoenix lawsuit is putting unwelcome heat on US NextGen plans to roll out performance based navigation

On September 14, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) implemented Performance Based Navigation (PBN) changes to approach/takeoff flight paths at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), as part of the agency’s national deployment of NextGen satellite-based air traffic control.

On June 1, 2015, the City of Phoenix filed a lawsuit against the FAA over these changes, which have resulted in city officials being swamped by resident noise complaints. The City is calling for a ‘judicial review’ of the FAA’s September 14, 2014 ‘unilateral implementation of RNAV (area navigation) routes in Phoenix airspace’ with an eye to rolling back these changes, or at least adjusting route changes to address the noise concerns of people on the ground.

The lawsuit comes after months of unsuccessful negotiations between the City and the FAA to resolve the PBN noise issues to everyone’s satisfaction.

“The FAA’s rearrangement of flight routes since September 18, 2014, upended decades of land-use compatibility planning that directed billions of dollars of private investment while the city invested hundreds of millions of dollars of noise mitigation efforts all based on previous stable flight tracks,” wrote Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher in the June 1, 2015 letter he sent to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.

“FAA’s RNAV route changes have exposed tens of thousands of Phoenix residents to intolerable levels of noise that affect sleep, conversation and daily life. These residents were never given an opportunity to have a voice in the very process that has destroyed their quality of life.”

Review

A review of pre- and post-September 14, 2014 flight paths into PHX explains the problem. Before September 14, the flight paths were widely and somewhat evenly distributed over the approach/takeoff areas.

After September 14, the move to PBN has created some narrow, tightly packed corridors. The results is some residents living around PHX are having many more aircraft flying overhead daily than before. Other are experiencing overhead traffic in areas that used to be on one side or the other of the flight paths. Conversely, some residents are now experiencing less overhead aircraft traffic – but since they’re not complaining, these residents’ improved noise situation is not being taken into account.

On the very same date that the City of Phoenix sued the FAA over the PBN-based PHX changes, FAA regional administrator (Western-Pacific

Region) Glen Martin wrote a conciliatory letter to Zuercher, thanking the City of Phoenix for meeting with the FAA and airlines recently to jointly address the PHX noise issues. “We believe the discussions were productive and identified a number of adjustments that could provide some relief to the community.”

Letter

In this letter, Martin told the City of Phoenix that ‘the FAA is supportive of all the short-term options that were discussed’. They included restricting early turns for northbound departures except when required for safety reasons; adjusting westbound departures to the north and south; supporting the City’s request to proceed with voluntary nighttime noise abatement procedures; and exploring the City’s proposal for noise abatement overlays above historic districts.

Martin also wrote that the FAA ‘commits to explore a procedural adjustment that would shift the north turn slightly to the west’ and ‘will commit to explore a possible adjustment for westbound departures to the south’.

Glen Martin’s June 1, 2015 letter didn’t smooth things over in Phoenix. The lawsuit remained unchanged, city officials stayed angry, and residents under the new PBN flight paths kept complaining. Three days later, things got worse: congressmen who represent the Phoenix area managed to amend the Fiscal Year 2016 THUD Appropriations Bill to reverse the FAA’s PBN changes until the ongoing noise issues are resolved.

“The changes were made without meaningful input or consultation with community members or civic leaders in the Phoenix area, and have caused severe noise disruption for the citizens of Phoenix and lowered their quality of life,” said Congressman Ruben Gallego. He added “This amendment will ensure that the FAA does not proceed with changes to the regional airspace until the issues in Phoenix are resolved. It will also set a precedent regarding aircraft noise and its impact on local communities, as the NextGen program moves forward across the nation.”

“It is time the FAA works with local stakeholders in a meaningful manner, as equal partners, in order to mitigate the noise impact the new NextGen flight paths have caused on our communities,” added congressman David Schweikert. “By preventing the FAA from moving forward with the Phoenix MetroPlex programme, this amendment ensures that the FAA is responsive to the citizens of Arizona whose lives have been disrupted by the flight path changes implemented at Phoenix Sky Harbor.”

Dispute

At press time, the two sides in this NextGen dispute remain locked in combat. The City of Phoenix and area congressmen are riding high on the positive press generated by fighting the FAA. While waiting for the issue to progress, City managers have disciplined six staff members who knew about the FAA PBN changes before they occurred, for failing “to appropriately communicate the situation as it was happening,” said Zuercher in a public statement.

Phoenix residents aren’t the only ones who are upset by PBN changes to their airport approaches: In March 2015, the city of Chicago received 35,000 noise complaints following the introduction of NextGen flight paths at Chicago O’Hare International Airport. AviationToday.com reported that the County Board of Arlington, Virginia, was due to host a community meeting with the FAA and Metro Washington Aviation Administration (MWAA) to address complaints from residents about increased aircraft noise at Reagan National Airport, which was one of the airports within the redesigned Washington D.C. Metroplex completed late last year.

On the other side, the FAA is sticking to its guns as it works to roll out PBN/NextGen ATM nationwide. For instance, the agency is preparing to implement 109 new PBN procedure in the Southern California Metroplex, which covers 11 airports including Los Angeles International (LAX). Meanwhile, the FAA says the implementation of the North Texas NextGen Metroplex in 2014 – which includes Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport – is projected to save aircraft flying here up to estimated 15 million litres (4.1 million U.S. gallons) of fuel annually.

“Every flight that comes into D/FW as a result of the programmes we’re talking about today will see a reduction of 300 to 500 pounds of fuel per flight, reducing our carbon emissions,” said Robert Isom, chief operating officer at American Airlines, during a joint news conference with the FAA in November 2014.

First Time

As the FAA continues to deploy PBN/NextGen at American airports, complaints are likely to rise; simply cause the change will mean that residents unaccustomed to aircraft noise will now be experiencing it for the first time, and residents accustomed to a level of aircraft noise will be hearing more of it.

“The problem is that some people have bought homes where an airport is their neighbour, and they are not willing to accept the implications of this fact – and that flight paths can and do change,” said Steve Brown; chief operating officer with the National Business Aviation Association.“Now it is wise for airports to make accommodations with the people living around them to mitigate noise wherever possible, but these are airports: There is only so much they can do.”

How far US citizens can go in fighting the noise issues associated with PBN-based approach changes remains to be seen. After all, noise has been an issue since regular aircraft service began in the United States; resulting in legislation that limits airport noise levels and operating hours, and led to the development of quieter jet engines back in the 1960s. At the same time, the FAA’s deployment of PBN/NextGen is a direct response to the growth in aviation travel that is being driven by the same US public!

“It is unclear right now how this will all shake out,” said Justin Towles, staff vice president at American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). “What is clear is that PBN/NextGen is destined to be how air traffic is handled in the US going ahead. There’s just no other way to manage the growing number of aircraft needing to share the same airspace.”

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