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For the Record

Fighting the FAA



Bob Capazzo

The relatively short distance to New York airports is often referred to in promotional literature extolling the virtues of living in Greenwich. Not mentioned is the price many of us pay for this convenience. Air traffic has expanded dramatically, especially at Westchester County Airport where general aviation has grown at an even faster pace than commercial airline traffic. All this new air traffic brings with it the substantial increase in noise level we experience with ever-greater frequency over our heads. Since New York airports are not just a destination but a major hub for both domestic and international flights, increased traffic has given them the distinction of leading the nation in delayed departures and landings. Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark are at the bottom of the list of all U.S. airports for on-time landings. And when landings are delayed, so are departures, creating a ripple effect throughout the country. This has led the FAA to undertake the restructuring and broadening of its approach and departure flight patterns in New York air space.

The proposed changes have stirred up a beehive of complaints from residents of towns throughout lower Fairfield County, especially New Canaan, Wilton and Weston where residents anticipate more frequent high-decibel disturbance of the peace and tranquility of their patios and gardens. Eleven towns, including Greenwich, have banded together to sue the FAA, and at the behest of Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, have been joined by the state. The suit is based on the failure of the FAA to follow proper procedure in providing public notice and meetings, as well as failure to factor in environmental issues.

Bruce Dixon, chairman of the Selectmen’s Committee on Aircraft Noise, is a licensed pilot. He and Selectman Peter Crumbine have studied the material in the FAA proposal at length and have found its presentation of the proposed new flight routes extremely complex and difficult to analyze. Lacking specifications on altitude, it is also incomplete. Without altitude information — suspected by some to be a deliberate omission — there is no way to determine potential noise levels.

The FAA study supporting the agency’s proposed changes was also faulted for not incorporating data on private aviation with its burgeoning number of light jets. The unpredictable schedules of general aviation flights make them less subject to analysis than scheduled airlines, but their effect on flight control operations can be significant. According to Bruce Dixon, controllers, for example, must allow a distance of two miles between heavy jets when landing or taking off in order to avoid the tornado effect from the lead plane’s engines. For a light jet following a heavy, they must allow as much as five miles’ separation to avoid turbulence.

If the FAA’s revised flight patterns promised important time savings and a significant increase in on-time landings, they might be worth the greater noise pollution of our neighborhoods. The FAA’s claim of shaving six minutes off each late arrival has been seriously challenged by consultants hired by the communities; this is clearly only a partial solution at best. One problem, according to those knowledgeable about the airline industry, is our half-century-old, radar-based air traffic control system. An investment in a GPS-based system, while calculated to be around $15 billion, would allow planes to fly closer together and fly more direct routes rather than vectoring all over the sky — thereby saving precious fuel.

Still, all of the above may not solve the air traffic crunch at the airports. There are just too many planes trying to take off and land at the same time. Proposals have been floated to lower the cap on the number of planes per day, or to hike landing fees and charge airlines a premium for those popular morning and late afternoon hours when air traffic peaks. The most meaningful solution, at least ten years over the horizon, is a fourth airport. The Port Authority has taken control and is developing Stewart International Airport just sixty-five miles north of Manhattan. Rail service to Manhattan is being contemplated.

Meanwhile, chances are slim that the towns or the state will actually win a suit against the FAA. No one ever has. So why are we joining other towns in this action if we’re just tilting at windmills? The simple answer is to put pants on our complaints about the FAA establishing new flight patterns without regard to those who live under them. Partly it’s to be a good neighbor to other towns with the same concerns, and partly it’s to give concrete support to the state in its case against the FAA.

Nor are Fairfield County towns alone in this. Legal action against the FAA has been initiated by a number of New Jersey communities as well. In sharing the cost with others, we are able to hire expert legal council and a lobbyist that specialize in this type of litigation, plus a grassroots publicist. The cost of joining in the litigation is relatively modest, and we will be putting pressure on the FAA to respond positively to our concerns. To succeed, says Chris Shays, it’s going to take everyone at the local state and federal level working together. At the very least, it will be a delaying action while more palatable and effective solutions can be developed. 

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