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Facing mounting opposition from Twin Cities residents worried about future airplane noise, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport officials on Monday backed away from a major shift in flight patterns that would have increased traffic over some neighborhoods.
Instead, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) endorsed a less dramatic shift that uses new satellite technology of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) only where it would reduce airplane traffic over Eagan, Mendota Heights and other suburbs. The MAC opposed using the technology where it would concentrate more air traffic over some neighborhoods of southwest Minneapolis, Richfield and Edina.
But the FAA, which had hoped to use the technology for all takeoffs from MSP by early next year, said the more limited strategy would have to be studied to make sure it is safe, and the earliest it could begin would be mid-2014.
The FAA is promoting the new technology as a way to improve safety and save fuel. By concentrating takeoffs on more narrow routes, it would reduce flights over some neighborhoods by routing them more precisely over the Minnesota River Valley or highways. But it also would send increased traffic over other homes in more densely populated areas.
Airport staff earlier supported using the technology for all departures. But those plans stalled amid an increasing chorus of objections by residents and local politicians, who complained that the airport and the FAA were fast-tracking the new system without rigorous examination of its effects.
MAC chairman Dan Boivin, a veteran of past battles over plane noise, said he hadn't encountered such intense public reaction since the 1990s.
"It's been overwhelming," said Chad Leqve, manager of noise, environment and planning for the airport.
And on Monday a standing-room-only crowd spilled out through the double doors of the MAC meeting room, which is above a concourse beyond airport security. They were required to get passes to reach it.
Many complained that neither the airport nor the FAA adequately informed area residents of how the new system could help some neighborhoods but hurt others.
"I was appalled at the complete lack of transparency," Nick Dolphin, a Minneapolis resident, told the commission. "You are picking winners and losers."
While most attending the meeting favored the limited approach adopted by the MAC, others complained that it would delay relief for homeowners who would benefit from the new technology.
"Every time you change a flight path ... someone's ox is going to be gored," said Richfield City Manager Steve Devich. His city backed the more comprehensive use of the technology because it would have routed planes more precisely over the Crosstown Expressway and away from homes that hadn't received government subsidized noise-proofing.
The FAA is rolling out elements of the new technology in airports around the nation. In an interview several weeks ago, Carl Rydeen, the assistant air traffic manager at Minneapolis-St. Paul, opposed using the technology for some takeoffs but not others because it could cause confusion among controllers.
But Dennis Roberts, director of airspace services for the FAA, acknowledged Monday that the new technology hasn't been fully implemented at other airports and said the agency could consider using it on some runways but not others at Minneapolis-St. Paul.
FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the agency would not install a system without a recommendation from the MAC.
Yet Ron Erhardt, a longtime member of the Minnesota House from Edina who specialized in transportation issues, said using the technology for some runways could make it easier for the FAA to push for it on others.
"They'll be back," he said.
Effects in Edina
Edina residents live farther from the airport than homeowners in southwest Minneapolis and Richfield, but they mounted an aggressive petition drive against using the technology for departures over their neighborhoods.
Plane traffic over Edina would have been concentrated on a more narrow path that included the Country Club District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Edina Mayor Jim Hovland told commissioners that the original plan by the FAA "punishes a few people significantly" instead of dispersing airplane noise over more neighborhoods.
Hovland said the FAA concern about safety is overstated given the strong safety record at the airport. He said the plan to use the technology on all runways catered to the desire of airlines to cut fuel costs at the expense of homeowners' property values.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who picked Boivin to serve as his delegate on the MAC, also spoke against the plan. Rybak and city council members and the Minneapolis legislative delegation sent the MAC letters last week urging it to withhold support for the original plan until a more comprehensive environmental review could be conducted.
Opponents also urged Gov. Mark Dayton to intervene. Boivin said he was in contact with a member of the governor's staff and was told, "we trust your judgment."
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504