One voice: Scottsdale pursues citizen relief from disruptive commercial flight patterns

Flights arriving and departing Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport are using paths regulated by a 2014 satellite-based navigation system coined NextGen. The changes are disruptive to local residents, officials say. (Photo courtesy of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport)

After nearly five years and hundreds of thousands of loud flights to the chagrin of Scottsdale residents, the local municipality is submitting comments to the Federal Aviation Administration regarding redirected Sky Harbor Airport traffic.

On Tuesday, May 21, Scottsdale City Council voted unanimously to approve a resolution authorizing Mayor Jim Lane to submit comments on behalf of the City of Scottsdale to the FAA regarding issues arising from airplanes arriving and departing Sky Harbor Airport, which has detrimentally affected local residents.

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 estimated 1,200 daily flights to and from Sky Harbor Airport.

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.

Ultimately, the new routes condensed and lowered flight corridors over thousands of homes, natural preserves and parks.

(Photo courtesy of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport)

The changes were made without notifying the community, officials say.

Since that time, the City of Phoenix filed a lawsuit on behalf of all Phoenix neighborhoods, which was followed by a suit brought by several historic Phoenix neighborhoods. The court joined the two lawsuits together.

In August 2017, the court issued an unprecedented opinion and a judgment that FAA violated federal law when implementing the new flight paths in September 2014. The order indicates the FAA will need to return to the routes in place prior to September 2014 until it conducts a new environmental process.

The ruling, however, only applies to westbound flights. Eastbound flights, which are affecting Scottsdale and Town of Paradise Valley homeowners, are still using the NextGen regulations.

The FAA says NextGen’s goal is to increase the safety, efficiency, capacity, predictability and resiliency of American aviation. This overhaul brings together innovative technologies, capabilities, and procedures that improve departure and arrival operations, the FAA government website states.

According to Sky Harbor Airport’s 2018 annual noise report, the city of Scottsdale had 11,584 complaints stemming from 105 households. Scottsdale had the second most complaints behind Phoenix.

Additionally, the north Scottsdale ZIP code of 85255 was the second highest reporting complaint area Valley-wide, yielding 7,925 noise complaints stemming from 36-74 households.

Prior to the NextGen implementation, Sky Harbor Airport received 44 complaints Valley-wide in 2013. In 2017, they reached a peak of 102,110. Since Phoenix’s lawsuit, and westbound changes reverting back to pre-NextGen paths, the complaints have lessened to be 53,280 in 2018.

In the airport’s most recent report, for April 2019, 85255 is still among the highest complaining areas, with 11-16 complaints in the area for one month.

Scottsdale’s proposed changes

Scottsdale contracted with Washington D.C.-based Covington & Burling law firm in July 2018 — the agency has experience dealing with federal regulatory matters, and specifically the FAA, city officials contend.

They also contracted with JDA Aviation Technology Solutions in November 2018, a nationally recognized expert in aviation issues to help the city find a way to assist its citizens in dealing with concerns.

Earlier this year, the FAA held a series of workshops, providing residents with information on changes made to Sky Harbor flight paths, and soliciting comments from the public on any concerns about the current paths.

It also accepted public comments through an online portal or by mail.

At the workshops, the FAA presented “concepts” for changing some of the flight paths for Sky Harbor air traffic. The organization, however, emphasized there was no commitment to implement the two concepts, and that it would wait until after the public had a chance to comment before deciding to take further action.

According to City Attorney Bruce Washburn, the concepts presented by the FAA would, if implemented, provide some relief to a number of Scottsdale residents. The city, with its hired partners, has worked to develop a proposal to submit to the FAA that builds on the their concepts, but which, in the opinion of JDA, would be substantially more beneficial to the city’s residents.

Bruce Washburn (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

The city is proposing modifications that would route much of the departing traffic further to the east and would reduce the channelization of the flights that occurred as a result of the changes made by the FAA in 2014.

The two preferred modifications presented by city officials would move the departure traffic almost entirely out of Scottsdale; with the second modification moving it not as far east, but over less-populated areas of the city.

“Essentially coming out of Sky Harbor, one of the flight paths, one of the departures, comes basically right up the middle of Scottsdale and up through north Scottsdale,” Mr. Washburn said, pointing to a flight path titled MRBIL. “This is really the bulk of the traffic departing from Sky Harbor.”

Flight paths in the Phoenix metro area include names such as MRBIL, ZEPER and QUAKY.

The primary alternative for departing flights, as suggested by Scottsdale and its experts, is for Sky Harbor traffic coming out of the airport go further to the east along the south boundary of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, before going north.

“This basically gets the departing flights — and we would suggest that except for those going out through ZEPER, this would be all of them — they all move this far east. There’s very little population, if any, they would be going over,” Mr. Washburn said, noting how the Valley of the Sun has more expansive land for the FAA to utilize than an east coast city.

“We think it’s an appropriate trade-off to add a few more miles rather than channelize all this traffic over the populated areas of Scottsdale.”

A second modification has been created as well, Mr. Washburn says, which doesn’t take the flights quite as far east. He says the second option would be acceptable, but a lot of the traffic would be diverted over other residential areas in Fountain Hills and the McDowell Mountain Regional Park.

The Scottsdale City Council, pictured above, unanimously approved sending comments to the FAA regarding flight path complaints. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

‘A lesson learned’

D.C. Ranch Community Council Public Affairs Director, Christine Irish, spoke at the City Council meeting to represent the development’s 7,000 residents.

Ms. Irish says after joining forces with community advocate group SCANA — also known as Scottsdale Coalition for Airplane Noise Abatement — they surprisingly saw the FAA present their concepts, which would lessen the impact to north Scottsdale if implemented.

Christine Irish

“DC Ranch is hopeful that you will vote to support the recommended modifications and strongly advocate for their adoption by the FAA,” Ms. Irish said. “If it’s a ‘yes’ vote tonight, DC Ranch will submit their official comments to the FAA tomorrow endorsing the City of Scottsdale’s preferred modifications. We will also encourage our residents to submit the same comments, as we know there’s strength in numbers.”

The communication with FAA has been a long time coming, Councilwoman Virginia Korte said at the meeting, giving a public shout-out to SCANA Chairman Bud Kern and resident Jeff Schwartz for their time invested to resolve the issue.

“In 2014 when the whole flight path patterns changed, we received hundreds of complaints and our answer to them was, well the city of Phoenix is suing the FAA and in a lawsuit, so we need to sit back and see what happens,” Ms. Korte said. “Fortunately, the City of Phoenix prevailed and I think that took the FAA a little bit by surprise. And yet, we as a city kind of continued to really not know what to do.”

Councilwoman Kathy Littlefield took time at the dais to publicly state that a lawsuit is not out of the question for Scottsdale.

“I would also like to make it clear and put on the record, that we reserve as a city, the option and we’ll be prepared to sue if necessary to get relief, as Phoenix did,” Ms. Littlefield said. “They did get relief with their lawsuit; we played nice and we didn’t get relief. So I consider this as a lesson learned, and I want to make sure we don’t close that loophole on our options in the future.”

Mayor Jim Lane echoed Ms. Littlefield on her sentiment, stating the city always reserves the right to go further on an issue to effect better change.

“Working and dealing with the FAA, something I have some knowledge of in a past life, is never an easy thing — particularly when it revolves around what they believe to be safety versus anything else,” Mr. Lane said.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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