For nearly three years, Karen Starbowski has gritted her teeth over the sound of commercial passenger planes that fly over her Ahwatukee neighborhood relentlessly almost any time of the day or night.
“It’s worse now because the windows are open,” said Starbowski, who lives in the general vicinity of Corpus Christi Church. “The other night one woke me up at 1:30 in the morning.”
The 20-year Ahwatukee resident recalled that she first noticed the changes around nearly three years ago.
“I could see there was a definite change,” she said. “It went from two random flights at higher altitude to a lot of flights at lower altitude.”
This month, Starbowski and other Ahwatukee residents who have complained to the Federal Aviation Administration about the constant roar of airplanes flying in and out of Greater Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport will have a chance to tell the agency why those flight patterns should be changed.
But whether the FAA will heed their complaints is another story altogether.
In announcing three workshops for later this month – including one at Desert Vista High School – the FAA last week said it was about to begin Phase 2 of a court-ordered process to address noise complaints by examining the impact of the flight changes throughout the Phoenix area, but added:
“The FAA recognizes the importance and value of public input and will consider comments received. However, the FAA is not committing to make changes as a result of this input. The decision to implement potential airspace or route changes during Step Two will be at the FAA’s sole discretion.”
Starbowski is not the only Ahwatukee resident to complain – and Ahwatukee isn’t the only community where residents are upset with the FAA for changes to flight paths that arose from the FAA’s 2014 decision to implement its NextGen plan in an effort to streamline arrivals and departures at the airport.
Residents at the far western reaches of Ahwatukee also have complained. And as recently as January, county Supervisor Steve Chucri wrote the FAA to complain on behalf of residents in Scottsdale.
“Residents have reached out to my office to bring attention to the fact that they are suffering from the new NextGen eastbound departure routes from Sky Harbor and feel that the FAA has not listened to their concerns,” Chucri wrote.
NextGen opponents accused the FAA of changing the flight patterns without conferring with Phoenix and other municipalities that would be most affected by the changes.
The Sept. 18, 2014, change was supposed to enhance departures and arrivals, using communication between satellites and on-board airplane equipment to “navigate with greater precision and accuracy.”
After months of discussions and stalled negotiations regarding the noise complaints, Phoenix sued the FAA in June 2015.
The fight became so bitter that both former US Senators from Arizona jumped in and included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 a requirement that the FAA take steps to mitigate the negative effects they have on the community that a municipality can prove.
It also ensures that other airports and communities have the opportunity to engage with the FAA before any future changes are made.
“This legislation provides an important step forward in making sure Phoenix residents impacted by flight path changes at Sky Harbor International Airport have the opportunity to make their voices heard,” the late Sen. John McCain said after former President Obama signed the measure in late 2016.
“This legislation requires the FAA to mitigate the negative effects of flight path changes that have already been implemented, while providing impacted communities and airports a seat at the table before any future changes are made,” McCain added.
It’s unclear if US Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Martha McSally picked up the mantle in the fight from their predecessor. Neither of their offices replied to an AFN request for comment.
In the fall of 2017, NextGen opponents scored a major victory when the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favor of the City of Phoenix and several historic neighborhoods in the city.
In an unprecedented opinion, the court rebuked the FAA for its “arbitrary and capricious” violation of the law and ordered it to begin a new environmental impact study.
“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 court stated, adding that the FAA “had several reasons to anticipate that the new flight routes would be highly controversial.”
Among those reasons, the court found: “The air traffic over some areas would increase by 300 percent – with 85 percent of that increase attributed to jets – when before only prop aircraft flew overhead.”
The agency, Phoenix and representatives of the historic neighborhoods then reached an agreement to examine and revise the flight paths in a two-step process.
After conducting several workshops that drew more than 400 people and 1,100 letters and emails in early 2018, the FAA on March 29, 2018, enacted Step One by revising westerly routes. But it delayed action on southwesterly routes until May 2018, when it made a few changes in an effort to approximate the paths that were in existence before NextGen took effect.
Last October, the agency said it would hold workshops for Step Two – “to consider feedback on procedures throughout the Phoenix area — not just on the westerly departure routes.”
But those sessions were grounded by the government shutdown last December, prompting Chucri’s complaint.
The FAA is now accepting written input from Ahwatukee and other residents.
“The FAA reviewed and analyzed the previously received comments and has begun considering potential airspace changes not addressed by the implementation of west flow departures routes under Step One,” it said.
“Additionally, the FAA will review and analyze comments received at the April workshops and during the comment period, as well as those previously received. Based on the comments and other factors such as operational safety and efficiency, the FAA may initiate new airspace changes and complete an environmental review in accordance with applicable federal laws and FAA orders.”
But the agency also states that its “preliminary environmental review shows the proposed changes would not result in noise increases that exceed the FAA’s threshold of significance, or any other environmental effects that exceed standards in federal environmental law or FAA policies.”
Starbowski has filed at least a half-dozen complaints about jet noise with the FAA and the city. She said she also has complained to the Councilman Sal DiCiccio’s office but has not heard from him or his chief of staff.
She feels that the city has largely shoved the issue aside now that the FAA mollified the historic neighborhood residents.
“I got super excited when the city won the court case,” she said. “But now I am just frustrated.”
Making your voice heard
Here are the FAA workshop dates and locations. All three run 5-8 p.m.:
April 22, Desert Vista High School, 16440 S. 32nd St., Ahwatukee;
April 23, Pinnacle High School, 3535 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix;
April 24, Cesar Chavez High School, 3921 W. Baseline Road, Laveen.
To file a written complaint: skyharbor.com/FlightPaths/FileAConcernContactUs.
To file a comment on the flight path plan: faa.gov/nextgen/nextgen_near_you/community_involvement.