The Federal Aviation Administration will take no further action under a legal agreement with Phoenix stemming from a successful legal challenge against new flight paths out of Sky Harbor International Airport.
After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of Phoenix and the neighborhoods in 2017, the FAA signed onto an agreement that required it to return westbound departure routes to “approximate, as closely as possible, the pre-September 2014 flight paths.”
It also ordered the agency to conduct outreach efforts with other communities affected by the NextGen changes.
But after listening to public comments in Ahwatukee, Scottsdale and other parts of Phoenix, the FAA declared:
“The FAA will not be taking further action under Step Two, and has now completed all of its obligations under the Implementation Agreement. Any future actions that the FAA may undertake regarding airspace changes in and around Phoenix will be considered new actions that are unrelated to the Implementation Agreement.
“The Implementation Agreement provided that the FAA during Step Two would have sole discretion whether to make any changes to flight procedures that are unrelated to the westbound departures that were at issue in the lawsuit.”
The agency said it “intends to continue the dialogue with local stakeholders about issues that are of interest to them, as we do in communities throughout the United States.”
The flight paths – part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen plan to increase efficiency in 2014 – had resulted in a successful legal challenge by the City of Phoenix and some of its historic neighborhoods.
They argued the FAA did not do proper public outreach to figure out how the path changes would affect them.
Homeowners in certain parts of Ahwatukee, particularly in far west communities, have complained about noise from passenger planes flying overhead ever since the 2014 NextGen changes took effect.
Monthly noise reports issued by the Phoenix Department of Aviation in 2019 show that most of the Ahwatukee complaints emanate from the 85045 ZIP code, although the report does not contain the number of complaints that originated in each ZIP code.
In its 2018 annual report – the most recent released – the Phoenix Aviation Department said it had received total 53,280 complaints about aircraft noise from throughout the Valley – a 47.8 percent decrease from the 102,110 complaints in 2017.
Those complaints also represented not only flights from Sky Harbor but also from the Goodyear and Deer Valley airports.
The number of households submitting complaints for 2018 decreased by 12.8 percent from 783 total households in 2017 to 683 in 2018, it added. One graphic in the Aviation Department’s report also puts the noise complaints into perspective: The 53,280 complaints were logged in a year when there were close to 435,000 flight operations involving Sky Harbor alone, and almost as many involving Deer Valley Airport.
Monthly reports for all but December of last year show that complaints about air traffic noise were filed by Ahwatukee households, although no numbers are provided.
Some Ahwatukee homeowners have complained that airliners fly above their homes at all times of the day and night. Some told AFN they’ve spent thousands of dollars on sound-proofing their windows to reduce the aggravating noise.
Some unattributed complaints the FAA referred to in its latest decision involved flights around Ahwatukee, although the complaints were not attributed to anyone.
“Air traffic arriving from the East disturbs wild life and air quality at Phoenix South Mountain Park,” one complaint stated. “They are especially noisy on ‘no motor vehicle’” days and after dark. At the summits some large aircrafts do not seem high enough.”
Another stated, “We have noticed since the flight paths have been changed excessive noise and we can see the air pollution which will fall onto the Sonoran preserve and effect plant life also.”
After adjusting some routes as the result of the court ruling, the FAA held a series of open houses in April – including one in Ahwatukee – to hear from homeowners.
But even when it announced it would hold those open houses, the agency warned it might not make any additional changes to the routes..
FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor said at the Ahwatukee open house last year, as well as one in Scottsdale, that “we are just here to listen.”
Amid easels with maps showing possible route changes, Gregor cautioned they were conceptual, referring to them as little more than “drawings on the back of a napkin.
He said any proposed routes faced months or years of feasibility studies required to make them a reality.
Despite that additional outreach, however, the agency said it hasn’t changed its mind.
Scottsdale officials and residents were furious with the FAA’s decision to not alter paths over northern parts of the city despite a nearly-$200,000 city-funded lobbying effort.
“Obviously it’s a major disappointment…because I really think we have been led to believe, even by their submissions, that they would be open to some consideration, certainly with what they proposed back to us,” Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane said.
Bud Kern, founder of SCANA, an acronym for the Scottsdale Coalition for Airplane Noise Abatement, was livid over the announcement.
“The FAA is an arrogant bureaucracy only intent on serving the airlines and its own self interests,” Kern said.
“It has no conscience about ruining the well-being of thousands of residents and the communities they live in,” he added.
He added, “The FAA clearly used a strategy to string along the public as long it could, knowing all along it was not going to offer relief to our communities.”
Kern argued the original 2017 D.C. court ruling required the FAA to return all routes, not just the westerly routes over Phoenix, to their pre-2014 configurations.
The ruling stated that the court vacated “the September 18, 2014 order implementing the new flight departure routes at Sky Harbor International Airport.” The agreement between the FAA and Phoenix later stipulated only the western routes would be affected.
“While the parties later settled on an agreement that only included the western departures, the court’s ruling was never revised to say western only,” Kern said.
Scottsdale proposed its own changes but the FAA rejected that proposal.
Gregor said the agency never did any new feasibility or environmental reviews of the conceptual routes that it displayed at the open houses.
“The FAA has not proposed any new routes in the Phoenix area,” Gregor said.
“As we noted in our Jan. 10 update, even though we have concluded the Implementation Agreement, we intend to continue the dialogue with local stakeholders about issues that are of interest to them, as we do in communities throughout the United States.”
When asked if the FAA has any specific plans to continue that dialog, Gregor said “We do not have any specific meetings or discussions planned at this time.”