Phoenix airport noise case may provide roadmap for challenging FAA at Sea-Tac


By Jack Mayne

A federal appeals court decision released on Aug 29 threw out changes the Federal Aviation Administration made to its landing and takeoff routes over and involving Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix that caused unexpected added noise over residential and historical parts of the Arizona city.

The FAA was told to rework its solutions in this case, which could have local implications.

Cheered local noise opponents
This action in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington has cheered many anti-airport noise campaigners in the area of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. They suggest this high court action bodes well for moves by both the Quiet Skies Coalition in Burien and the Quiet Skies Puget Sound Coalition in Des Moines to get the FAA to change its plans to change flight landing and takeoff plans that would increase noise over Burien, SeaTac, Des Moines and other areas around the fast growing airport.

Steve Edmiston – a Des Moines lawyer and member of the Quiet Skies Puget Sound citizens group opposing FAA flight path changes – said the Phoenix case is a “useful roadmap for other airport neighbor cities, with a virtual step-by-step guide for reviewing the FAA’s actions to determine whether the FAA failed to provide adequate notice and information to the proper individuals and groups, failed to collect needed information, and otherwise failed to comply with three federal statutes, before rolling out its satellite-based navigation procedures.”

Noise up 300 percent
In Phoenix, the FAA said they did not think any changes to the long-held flight paths in and out of Sky Harbor International Airport would cause any added noise problems.

In addition, the FAA “did not got to senior Phoenix city officials to discuss their changes” and only presented the finalized Phoenix flight routes at a “meeting attended by a low-level project manager of the city’s aviation department” and to “other low-level people.”

“The FAA did not share its environmental conclusions with Airport management until the day before the routes were to go into effect,” the appeals court ruling said. “Management asked the FAA to delay implementation so the public could be informed.

“The FAA refused.” It maintained its opinion that the changes would not cause undue added noise to historic and park areas of Phoenix or to its nearby residents.

The federal court bounced this idea as unreasonable.

“As noted, the FAA’s proposal would increase by 300 percent the number of aircraft flying over twenty-five historic neighborhoods and buildings and nineteen public parks, with 85 percent of the new flight traffic coming from jets,” the appeals court wrote.

“The idea that a change with these effects would not be highly controversial is ‘so implausible’ that it could not reflect reasoned decision making.”

So it is back to the drawing board in Phoenix.

So, what about Sea-Tac?
Steve Edmiston is an attorney and member of Quiet Skies Puget Sound, and is also on the new Des Moines Aviation Advisory Committee formed to address and make recommendations to the city council about negative impacts created by the Sea-Tac airport.

In an online post, Edmiston said the Phoenix case “dealt a significant setback” to the “relentless nationwide rollout of satellite-navigation-based airport expansions” that was started at Sky Harbor in Phoenix.

“The FAA’s notice was deemed inadequate because the FAA was required to confirm, and did not confirm, that the individuals notified were the correct individuals for assuring compliance with the NHPA. Critically, for airport communities suffering from NextGen in other cities, the FAA failed because it did not provide the public with information about how action affects historic properties and seek public comment and input.”

He noted the court decision also “provides some truly remarkable holdings.”

Failed to notify
The case makes the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) a “critical component for community pushback against the FAA. The Court found the FAA failed to determine that no historic structures were adversely affected and failed to notify required parties and provide relevant documentation,” Edmiston said. “The FAA’s notice was deemed inadequate because the FAA was required to confirm, and did not confirm, that the individuals notified were the correct individuals for assuring compliance with the NHPA.

“Critically for our own Sea-Tac communities, the FAA failed because it did not provide the public with information about how action effects historic properties and seek public comment and input.

In addition, he said National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the “FAA wrongfully avoided a more detailed environmental impact statement by erroneously applying a ‘categorical exclusion’ to the route changes.”

The appeals court said no categorical exclusion can apply if there are “extraordinary circumstances,” which exist when the action is “likely to be highly controversial on environmental grounds.”

“Common sense reveals otherwise,” Edmiston said. “As noted, the FAA’s proposal would increase by 300 percent the number of aircraft flying over 25 historic neighborhoods and buildings and 19 public parks, with 85 percent of the new flight traffic coming from new jets.

Noise not a danger

Third, he said the Transportation Act holdings “may provide the most unique and powerful roadmaps of all. The Court found the FAA failed to consult with the city “in assessing whether new routes would substantially impair the City’s parks and historic sites,” and “FAA was wrong to find the routes would not substantially impair these protected areas.”

“The key rationale that will cause the FAA severe heartburn is this: ‘the FAA cites no evidence that it consulted with these city officials on historic sites and public parks in particular.’ In other words, the FAA can’t go through the motions in a consultation, because the devil is in the details and content of the consultation, Edmiston said.

Edmiston also said that the court used the federal Transportation Act “to hit the nail on the head for our local communities. In addressing the FAA’s argument that over flights had already historically occurred in these communities, the court shut the door with common sense.”

The court said “those earlier flights involved propeller aircraft that flew far less often so the homes beneath them might still have been generally recognized as ‘quiet settings.’ In other words – historical uses are not the same as present uses and the FAA can’t try to avoid its obligations by claiming it has already made some noise.


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