Recent developments regarding safety, capacity and the environmental impact of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport clearly suggest that Minnesota needs to pause and carefully, thoroughly and transparently review oversight of the airport before we commit even more money to its expansion as proposed in the MSP 2035 Long Term Comprehensive Plan (LTCP).
The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) is actively presenting the 2035 LTCP to local government bodies, aiming for final approval by the end of this year or early in 2016. The plan not only calls for more terminal expansion but also projects an increase in flight operations, the use of bigger planes and more noise from flights — all this just as the Federal Aviation Administration has suspended use of the newest MSP runway.
At the same time, the FAA is facing multiple legal and other challenges due to its mismanagement of the airspace above cities across the country.
These parallel events need a more systematic and critical review. Otherwise we are just plotting a collision course between the MAC’s capital expenditures, citizens’ demands and the FAA’s management of our airport’s operations.
To understand the issues, some history may help:
In 1989, the state Legislature directed the Metropolitan Council and the MAC to evaluate whether to relocate the airport or expand the capabilities at the current site. The decision was made to keep the current location, and in 1998 the FAA gave its final approval to a new, $700 million runway that was at the core of a $3.2 billion expansion.
That runway is known as Runway 17/35, with flights departing to the south using the designation Runway 17 and flights arriving on the same runway in the opposite direction (north) using the designation Runway 35. The runway does not lie parallel to the other two main runways. Rather, in the case of an aborted landing, an aircraft ascending again to the north could intersect with a plane taking off from Runway 30L to the northwest of the airport (see accompanying diagram).
The runway was completed in 2005 and was intended to serve at least two purposes. First, it was key to expanding the capacity of the airport to meet expected increases in demand for flights over the next few decades. Second, it was expected to channel nearly 40 percent of noisy flight departures over the Minnesota River, and away from residents to the immediate north and northwest of the airport.
The result should have been more flights, with less noise over residents, and a more competitive and efficient airport.
Runway to nowhere
On Aug. 5, Twin Cities residents learned that the FAA had indefinitely suspended the ability of planes to land onto Runway 35. The effect is to cut the maximum capacity of the airport from 90 flights an hour to between 60 and 64. The reason for this suspension is that the FAA is now concerned that planes arriving onto Runway 35 could, in the case of an aborted landing, collide with planes departing off Runway 30L.
The question that immediately emerges is: What exactly was the FAA looking at when it approved the runway in the first place? It has been obvious since the day Runway 35 was first drawn that aborted arrivals could potentially intersect departures from Runway 30L. Yet the arrangement was approved.
Sadly, this is not the first time the FAA’s management of Runway 17/35 has been questioned. In 2007, the agency was asked why it was using the runway for departures nearly 40 percent less often than intended. The answer amounted to the FAA stating that it takes more time to do so, because planes have to wait to cross over another runway first.
Yet the FAA obviously knew this would be the case when it approved Runway 17/35, since Terminal 1 (Lindbergh) is between the two main parallel runways. So it seems we authorized the MAC to spend $3.2 billion to expand an airport, with a key $700 million feature being a runway that the FAA now does not want to use to the south and that is apparently not safe to operate to the north.
As this has played out, Twin Cities residents have grown ever more concerned about noise levels from the airport. My recent analysis shows why.
The real impact
Across the country, citizens are rising up against the FAA’s management of airport operations. This is being sparked in large part by the agency’s imposition of its NextGen technology, which aims to make the nation’s airspace more “efficient.” However, the FAA is implementing this in a way that results in hundreds of thousands of additional people being subjected to harmful and highly annoying levels of noise.
Locally, the FAA’s efforts to impose NextGen-based departures were defeated in early 2014 by thousands of concerned citizens who rose up against this federal overreach and mismanagement of local resources. Thus far, ours is the only metro area to have won this argument.
All of this is a direct result of the FAA using outdated, 1970s-era research to assess the impact of noise.
Late last year, I set out to show the extent to which the FAA is failing to deal with the American people on this topic in a transparent and accountable way. In October 2014, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for access to an FAA database that, much to my surprise, assesses noise at a detailed level at 160 airports across the U.S. Working with the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, I analyzed that data using internationally accepted standards.
That analysis shows that about 100,000 residents of the Twin Cities are significantly impacted by aircraft noise from MSP — or more than 30 times the number claimed by the FAA. In addition, one example from my initial analysis of recent MAC documents suggests that if the currently proposed expansion of the airport were to proceed — as is proposed in the 2035 LTCP — the area of significant impact from noise would grow until it extends across much of St. Louis Park.
Of course, the contrast to the situation we have in the Twin Cities is Denver, which 20 years ago opened the new, $4.8 billion Denver International Airport in a rural area outside the city. It now has more flights from multiple airlines with major operations competing for local travelers’ business, resulting in domestic airfares that average nearly $100 less than those from MSP (source: U.S. Bureau of Transportation, Q4 2014).
In other words, more flights, less noise and lower prices.
Time to reduce speed
A direct Twin Cities competitor forged ahead of us on the aviation front with an airport that offers more flights at lower prices, to go along with dramatically less impact from noise. Meanwhile, our federal partner, the FAA, continues to make questionable decisions in managing local and national airspace, with citizens paying the price through reduced health, wellness and property values, and a local runway we apparently can’t use.
We can’t change a decision made nearly 20 years ago to not build a new airport. And while we can’t unilaterally impose our will on the FAA, we can take our time to create a more transparent and accountable approach to managing the airport.
That should include slowing down and enhancing our evaluation of the 2035 LTCP, with its hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending to handle new traffic that we may not even have the runways to support.
Let’s use this opportunity to give full consideration to new facts on the harmful effects of noise pollution. Let’s look at what other cities with major airports have done, like Denver, or Amsterdam, which handles 60 percent more passengers than MSP, is similarly close to the city center, and yet has less than half the significant impact from noise as our airport.
Most important, let’s establish a process to ensure that we have adequate local oversight of the FAA as it manages the operation of our airport in our densely populated metro area.
The current 2035 LTCP process calls for one public input meeting of the draft plan scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday. Then, after the MAC adopts the draft plan, there will be a 45-day public comment period (tentatively planned for mid- to late October).
Those who have the most influence over the plan — the governor, the Legislature and the Met Council — should hit the pause button to ensure we have a truly transparent and accountable process in place to maximize the positive and minimize the negative from the airport and the FAA bureaucracy.
Kevin Terrell is a co-founder of the MSP FairSkies Coalition (www.MSPFairSkies.org), advocating for decreased aircraft noise in the Twin Cities and in cities across the U.S.