Federal officials Wednesday backed away from a plan to consolidate airplane takeoffs from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport onto narrow highways in the sky, but the idea will continue to hang over Twin Cities homeowners.
The Federal Aviation Administration rejected a request to use its new routing technology only on some of the airport’s runways, and not on the ones sending planes over south Minneapolis and Edina.
The agency said the partial approach would pose “unacceptable safety risks.”
The Metropolitan Airports Commission had recommended using the technology for some runways but not others. Instead, the FAA dropped its plans for using the satellite technology on any of the runways at MSP. But the agency left open the possibility of reconsidering it for all runways in the future, and Twin Cities officials expect that will happen because the FAA has given it a high priority at airports nationwide.
“Once the FAA decides to implement … there will be more time for discussion with people who are impacted by it,” said Rick King, a member of the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
The FAA says the technology, being phased in at airports throughout the nation, is intended to improve safety and save airlines fuel by routing planes on more precise flight patterns. But the strategy would potentially create winners and losers with airplane noise, concentrating more departures over some homes and moving them away from others.
The FAA plan caused an uproar last year when homeowners in parts of Edina and south Minneapolis learned that more takeoffs could be concentrated over their neighborhoods. In response, the MAC in late 2012 recommended rolling out the new system for only some runways and avoiding runways that routed departures over those communities. The FAA postponed action on its plan to study the MAC proposal.
In rejecting partial use of the technology, the FAA on Wednesday said it would pursue a “community outreach plan” in the future if it reconsiders plans to use the technology on all departure runways.
The FAA’s decision was announced in a letter to the Airports Commission. It said a study that began in May concluded that using the technology for some runways and traditional air traffic control on others created “catastrophic” or “hazardous” risks on the ground or in the air.
The letter said the only options were to use the existing air traffic control procedures or the new technology for departures on all runways. It concluded that if the new takeoff technology is “reconsidered by FAA at any time in the future, we would welcome the opportunity to work with you.”
Airports Commissioner King said he expects the FAA to reconsider the technology in 2015 or 2016. “If there’s a line of airports to be implemented … we dropped back in the line,” he said. “They were clearly going to go where decisions are easier.”
King said he had hoped the technology would have worked on just some of the runways, “but safety considerations are paramount.”
He said the agency was concerned that using the technology on some runways but not others would add to the workload and stress of air traffic controllers, whose work involves rotating from runway to runway.
While departures will be handled for now under current air traffic control procedures, the FAA will use the new technology for routing arrivals, which wasn’t controversial.
‘No plan to reconsider’
King and Minneapolis City Council Member John Quincy, who has followed airport issues closely, said the FAA decision will likely delay but not prevent the arrival of the technology to all runways because the FAA has given it a high priority across the nation.
“There’s no plan to reconsider it,” said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory, regarding use of the technology for Minneapolis-St. Paul departures.
King and Quincy welcomed the FAA’s vow to work with local communities on shaping any future plan to use the new system.
“We’re not here to sell the FAA plan to our residents,” Quincy said. “We would like input in shaping departure tracks. We’d like more of them, we’d like noise dispersed as widely as possible and sharing a burden.”
He said the FAA worked with the airline industry to shape its plan before bringing it to local officials and communities.
U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen also applauded the FAA’s decision to back off — at least for now — from bringing the technology to the Twin Cities.
“It was wrong for the FAA to initially try and implement these changes without thorough and proactive engagement from the impacted communities,” said Paulsen, a Republican.
“It’s always a tough issue because the airplanes are going to fly over somebody’s house,” airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said. “There are areas to the south and east where we can minimize,” citing river valleys as an example. “But to the west, there really is not a path that isn’t going to impact somebody.”