Like a noisy jet rumbling over your house on an otherwise quiet summer night, Minnesota’s winter calm was disrupted by a fast-breaking controversy over an obscure airplane landing strategy known as Area Navigation (or RNAV).
Most Minnesotans didn’t know why so many people suddenly were so upset about a new technology to land planes at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Those under the flight path understood all too well that this could have a huge impact on their quality of life. And the controversy for them is only beginning.
Get used to this battle, and others like it. We will be spending many days, over many years, in controversies just like this, and involving many more homeowners — unless we develop a new way to think about aviation in this state. The good news is that these challenges are avoidable. In the process, we can create an economic upside for Greater Minnesota.
First, some background:
The RNAV controversy centered on a plan to use new technologies to concentrate flights into tighter takeoff and landing corridors. This may make sense in the control tower, and to some people in other communities affected by airport noise. But over parts of Edina and Minneapolis, it could create a nonstop superhighway jammed with airplanes.
The Metropolitan Airports Commission wisely delayed implementing the most controversial part of the plan late last year, but that only temporarily calmed upset residents. We will be in an even deeper mess soon because a proposed $1 billion expansion of the airport is projected to increase air traffic at MSP by 20 percent by 2025.
If we face this kind of controversy over how we route existing traffic at MSP, what is it going to be like when we increase it by 20 percent? With new landing technologies making it possible to land planes closer together, aren’t neighborhoods already rocked by noise going to see more and more flights, packed closer together into a potential nonstop overhead armada? Won’t new technologies like RNAV give the control tower more freedom to land planes, potentially meaning that close-in areas like St. Paul, which now have relatively low noise, will suddenly find themselves under flight paths?
If you can stand on the shores of Lake Harriet on an otherwise peaceful night and spot five planes at a time over your head, what will it be like when we can fly more and more, closer and closer together, with far more traffic?
This is exactly the situation many of us warned about 20 years ago when we said expanding the airport at the landlocked current site surrounded by developed neighborhoods would eventually create years of unwinnable controversies pitting economic growth against people’s homes. We fought for a more remote new airport like Denver’s, which has virtually unlimited potential to expand without destroying neighborhoods.
We lost that battle, so what do we do now?
First, we need a plan. The Metropolitan Airports Commission should spend the next year publicly and transparently developing a strategy to show the best possible way to accommodate that 20 percent increase in traffic. That may include new technologies and new landing strategies.
Overall, the plan won’t be pretty — doing this could require serious trade-offs for some neighborhoods — but at least we would have an honest look at the future. No more one-off controversies like the one we are living through; let’s put everything on the table and lay out a long-term plan.
Second, it’s time to recognize that we are trying to use a metropolitan solution to solve a statewide problem.
Minnesota’s economy can never grow with the vigor we want if the only aggressive aviation strategy we have is to jam more and more flights into one airport. MSP can and should continue to be, by far, our dominant airport. But the overcrowding we have could be significantly improved if we also used aviation capacity in other parts of the state.
Increasing passenger and freight traffic at St. Cloud, Rochester and Duluth, and linking these airports with other forms of transit, could actually help us bring in more air traffic to grow the economy, while improving economic growth in Greater Minnesota. In the process, this would take some air traffic off already overburdened metro neighborhoods.
Think about Rochester: As the Mayo Clinic plans its exciting expansion, shouldn’t we actively consider linking the existing Rochester airport to MSP through high-speed rail?
Think about St. Cloud: A dramatically underused airport could attract fliers from not only northern Minnesota, but from northern metro suburbs.
If these options — or others we may not have thought of — took even a fraction of the flights from MSP now going to just Chicago, we would have a positive impact on reducing flights over deeply affected neighborhoods now fighting about RNAV.
Let me be clear: I am not proposing moving, curtailing or limiting MSP. Instead, I’m suggesting that we solve the aviation problems that are sure to grow by using all the assets available in the state.
This is not a new thought, so why does it never happen? In large part it’s because of the disjointed way we plan and govern aviation in Minnesota. We have an Airports Commission that is well-endowed with revenues from parking, retail and gates at MSP. While the commission has deep resources to plan and attract flights to the metro area, the rest of the state’s aviation strategy and marketing is left to those small airports and to a small, slightly funded part of the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
No wonder we concentrate more and more of our air traffic over metro neighborhoods while Greater Minnesota fights for aviation crumbs. It should gall those in Greater Minnesota to have so little focus on growing their own airports, and in turn their areas’ economic futures, while every time they fly out of MSP they pay fees that create more concentration of traffic in the metro area.
There is a better way to do this. Reconstitute the Metropolitan Airports Commission as the Minnesota Aviation Commission. Fund it with fees from MSP and other airports, but mandate that it plan the aviation future for the whole state.
We have in front of us a massive expansion of MSP that will have an enormous impact on the flights we have, the fares we pay and the economic growth around the state for a generation. Aren’t the consequences large enough for us to ask these big questions first?
R.T. Rybak is mayor of Minneapolis.