Ahwatukee and other Phoenix residents who have complained of airplane noise may get relief after a federal appeals court last week slapped down the Federal Aviation Administration for its 2014 massive change in flight paths to and from Sky Harbor Airport.
Residents in the far western end of Ahwatukee have been part of the angry chorus of criticism that prompted Phoenix to sue the FAA and provoked angry letters to the agency from Arizona’s two U.S. senators.
In fact, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake pushed through legislation that would require the FAA to re-do the flight paths, which the city said caused environmental damage to residents, primarily in Phoenix’s historic districts, as a result of the noise.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for Washington, D.C., agreed with the city and neighborhood organizations, which said the FAA did not conduct adequate studies as required by federal environmental laws.
The court also chided the FAA for trying to evade those laws by only dealing with “low level” city employees, four of whom were later disciplined by Phoenix officials for not directing the agency to deal with higher-ups at City Hall.
The FAA’s changes increased by 300 percent the number of aircraft flying over 25 historic neighborhoods and buildings and 19 public parks.
“The idea that a change with these effects would not be highly controversial is ‘so implausible’ that it could not reflect reasoned decision making,” the court said.
“The public’s reaction was swift and severe: the planes supplied the sound, the public provided the fury,” it continued, noting Sky Harbor in two weeks
“received more noise complaints than it had received in all of the previous year.”
“Residents complained that the flights overhead were too loud and frequent and rattled windows and doors in their homes. Some claimed that they had trouble sleeping uninterrupted, carrying on conversations outdoors, or feeling comfortable indoors without earmuffs to mute the noise,” the court said.
The court also the FAA’s Regional Administrator told City Council that the agency’s pre-implementation procedures were “probably not enough because we didn’t anticipate this being as significant an impact as it has been, so I’m certainly not here to tell you that we’ve done everything right and everything we should have done.”
Calling the FAA’s actions “arbitrary and capricious” by “keeping the public in the dark,” the judges noted, “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.”
“This failure made it impossible for the FAA to take into account opposition on environmental grounds,” it said, adding:
“The FAA had several reasons to anticipate that the new flight routes would be highly controversial: The agency was changing routes that had been in place for a long time, on which the City had relied in setting its zoning policy and buying affected homes.”
It also said the city and neighborhood organizations “argue that the FAA violated its duty to consult with the city in assessing whether the new routes would substantially impair the city’s parks and historic sites. Second, petitioners claim that the FAA was wrong to find that the routes would not substantially impair these protected areas. We agree on both points.”
The FAA had no comment on the ruling and did not indicate whether it would seek a rehearing in the case.
The agency also has not responded to the demand by McCain and Flake that it tell them what it intends to do about the law Congress passed requiring it to reconsider the flight-path changes.