Scottsdale residents seek resolution to increased flight noise following FAA suit
Courtesy of the Scottsdale Independent.
By Melissa Fittro - Jan 10th, 2018
More than three years and hundreds of thousands of noise complaints later, residents in the Valley of the Sun, including Scottsdale, are still fighting noise emanating from general flight activities at Sky Harbor International Airport infiltrating the calm corridors of suburbia.
While a recent Phoenix lawsuit sided with the municipality and its residents, Scottsdale residents are looking for answers to noise on their side of town.
On Sept. 18, 2014, the Federal Aviation Administration implemented changes in flight paths using NextGen satellite-based navigation as part of an effort to streamline departures and arrivals of the 1,200 flights to and from Sky Harbor Airport every day.
NextGen, short for Next Generation Air Transportation System, is a national procedure aimed to improve the National Airspace System. With the implementation of NextGen, the FAA made significant changes without a proper environmental assessment or notification to the public, the Phoenix lawsuit outlined.
Ultimately, the new routes condensed and lowered flight corridors over thousands of homes, natural preserves and parks. North Scottsdale resident Bud Kern says his neighborhood has been greatly impacted by these changes.
From September 2013-August 2014, airport staff received approximately 300 noise comments from 56 households. Since the air traffic program was implemented, 105,502 comments from 1,483 households have been filed through 2016, a city of Phoenix Aviation Department 2016 Noise Report shows.
NextGen is the FAA’s extensive air traffic management modernization program that through satellite-based area navigation and digital communications systems is intended to increase operational efficiencies, remove human risk factors and reduce environmental impacts such as noise and emissions, the noise report claimed.
The 2016 noise report shows that Scottsdale yielded the second most Sky Harbor noise complaints, with 9,370 complaints from 262 households in 2015; and 16,842 complaints from 121 households in 2016. This is up from only 37 complaints in 2014 and seven in 2013.
According to Scottsdale Airport, the NextGen changes appear to have impacted Scottsdale by:
Creating tighter flight path corridors for Phoenix Sky Harbor commercial air traffic resulting in increased overflights in some areas and reducing them in other areas;
Tightening and slightly lowering departure turns out of Scottsdale Airport from the south to the northwest to de-conflict with other air traffic from Phoenix Deer Valley and Phoenix Sky Harbor;
Employing different departure procedures for Scottsdale Airport air traffic affecting timing, location and throttle-up factors in northern Scottsdale; and
Shifting Scottsdale Airport air traffic to the outer cusps of our existing flights paths in northern Scottsdale to de-conflict with other air traffic.
While the FAA, city of Phoenix and historic neighborhoods there are working through a two-step program to address westerly departing flights, residents in Scottsdale are eagerly awaiting their turn to be heard by the federal aviation group.
A new highway in the sky
Mr. Kern, a Scottsdale resident for more than a decade, says he is not alone in asking about the noisy aircraft passing overhead. His neighborhood is located in northeast Scottsdale where there is less ambient noise and the elevation is higher, he says.
“Due to our elevation we are closer to the planes that pass overhead so the noise is more noticeable and I noticed right away that all of a sudden there were planes coming over my property that had never come there before,” Mr. Kern explained in a Jan. 10 interview.
“It was like every two minutes there was a plane going over and it’s like ‘what’s going on?’”
One call to Sky Harbor and Mr. Kern says he was told about the NextGen project.
“That’s when we learned that the NextGen routes basically put a new highway in the sky over east and northeast Scottsdale. They moved the flight paths from the prior river beds, industrial areas, uninhabited areas, to inhabited areas and highly populated residential areas,” he said.
City of Scottsdale officials were in contact with state representatives and FAA officials from the start of the NextGen outcry.
According to a timeline provided by Scottsdale Airport, Mayor Jim Lane sent a letter to the FAA on Dec. 9, 2014. In a Dec. 23, 2014, FAA Regional Administrator Glen A. Martin responded to Mayor Lane’s letter, explaining their initial position on increased noise in the city.
“Presently, we do not plan to make any changes, which would impact the City of Scottsdale,” he wrote. “It is important to understand that the FAA does not move flight tracks from one community to another for the sake of moving noise.”
In January and February of 2015, Mayor Lane and Mr. Martin exchanged letters again. Mayor Lane urged the FAA to look at three specific flight paths believed to be causing consternation to the residents.
Mr. Martin stood strong on his stance that the north Scottsdale noise levels were “not at a level of significance that required mitigation,” citing studies conducted.
Letters from Scottsdale City Council, state officials, airport officials and the Arizona League of Cities were sent over the course of the next year. In early 2016, Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain cosponsored the Airspace Management Advisory Act.
Mr. Kern believes it’s time for Scottsdale’s officials to get re-engaged.
“I think at this point in time we’d like the city to get re-engaged, be a little bit more aggressive to oppose the FAA and hopefully to get some action,” he explained.
Residents from all over north Scottsdale are beginning to ban together to create a larger voice, Mr. Kern said.
“We don’t want it (the current court petition) to exclude the eastern paths,” he said. “We’d like to negotiate with the FAA in the same way the historic districts did — not to scrap NextGen, because there’s positive things there — but to look at three eastern flight paths and to amend those or move them closer to the original eastbound paths over uninhabited areas.”
Hundreds of private jets routinely use the Scottsdale Airport. (Submitted photo)
City of Phoenix v. FAA
On June 1, 2015, the city of Phoenix filed a lawsuit against the FAA over flight path changes and extreme discomfort to the community. The city alleged the agency created a negative impact on the community without proper due process, notification and consideration. Impacted historic neighborhoods filed suite against the FAA soon after.
The neighborhood associations include Story Preservation Association, Willo Neighborhood Association, Encanto-Palmcroft Historic Preservation Assocation and Roosevelt Action Association.
During the week of March 23, 2016, community and city of Phoenix representatives met in Washington, D.C. for court-ordered mediation.
No resolution was reached.
Oral arguments in the U.S. Court of Appeals took place on March 17, 2017.
On Aug. 29, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of the city of Phoenix and the neighborhoods.
“Today, the court issued an unprecedented opinion and a judgment that FAA violated federal law when implementing the new flight paths in September 2014,” an Aug. 29, 2017, Sky Harbor press release states.
“In the Court’s written opinion, it agrees with the City and Neighborhoods’ argument that FAA approval of the new flight routes in September 2014 was ‘arbitrary and capricious’ and violated the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Police Act, and the Department of Transportation Act.”
The judgment agreed the FAA violated its duty to consult with the city of Phoenix in assessing whether the new routes would substantially impair the city’s parks and historic sites, the press release states, noting that the FAA did not have enough information to find the routes would not substantially impair these protected areas.
“The FAA never conveyed the proposed route changes to senior officials in the city’s aviation department, local officials responsible for affected parks or historic districts, or elected city officials.”
The court ruling also states that “by keeping the public in the dark, the agency made it impossible for the public to submit views on the project’s potential effects — views that the FAA is required to consider,” the press release states.
On Nov. 30, 2017, the historic neighborhoods, Phoenix and the FAA entered into a memorandum regarding implementation of the court’s order, vacating the September 2014 flight paths instituted at Sky Harbor. The memorandum provided a two-step process for reverting the area navigation western departure routes that were the subject of legal action.
Step One: Create temporary western departure procedures that approximate pre-September 2014. This is to be done with support from the city and with the community as part of the process.
Step Two: Replace step one’s temporary western departure procedures with satellite-based procedures for the area navigation. The FAA will consider community feedback regarding these and other procedures throughout the Phoenix area as part of the outreach process.
In planning stages
With the judgment potentially limited to only the western aircraft departures, residents in Scottsdale are beginning to wonder how, and if, their noise issues can be addressed.
The FAA’s community outreach is a chance for Scottsdale residents to become engaged, Scottsdale Aviation Planning and Outreach Coordinator Sarah Ferrara says.
“We’re still waiting to hear when these meetings will be scheduled by the FAA,” Ms. Ferrara said in a Jan. 9 phone interview.
“We think that will be a good opportunity for residents to get involved and share their concerns. Tentatively it’s supposed to be in February — I think that is the time for neighbors to participate and voice their concerns.”
Ian Gregor, FAA public affairs manager, says the department is still planning its community outreach.
“The FAA is actively working to fulfill its obligations under the agreement. The agency and the city of Phoenix plan to hold workshops on the proposed changes in the near future,” he said in a Jan. 9 emailed response to questions. “Anyone will be able to attend the workshops. However, the workshops will only address potential changes outlined in the agreement.”
When asked if routes other than western departures will be addressed by the FAA, Mr. Gregor points to the agreement stipulations.
“Because the lawsuit only involved westerly departures from Phoenix Sky Harbor, Step One is limited to them. However, per the agreement, the FAA will consider recommendations we receive during the public workshops that are outside the scope of the westerly departure procedures.”