New technology for guiding takeoffs from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport will send more air traffic over freeways, a river basin and some neighborhoods, creating winners and losers in the fight over plane noise.
Supporters and skeptics use metaphors like "highway in the sky" to describe the new system, expected to launch planes on more precise and narrow departures.
The Federal Aviation Administration touts the technology as improving safety. Airlines like the fuel savings. The Metropolitan Airports Commission this month will consider endorsing the system and setting the stage for its debut next spring.
But some local officials complain that they don't have enough information on how it would distribute noise over the neighborhoods around the airport.
"There will be some winners and some losers," said Sandy Colvin Roy, a Minneapolis City Council member who represents neighborhoods recently frustrated by airport noise. The city doesn't yet know "whether the winners will get a big gain or just a little gain, or if the losers will get a big loss."
Fueling that uncertainty is concern that the FAA, the aviation industry and its supporters in Congress have fast-tracked approval by potentially exempting the new system from rigorous environmental review.
Still, one local supporter says the system should provide a fairer distribution of air traffic and noise.
"We actually may expose more people to some overflights, but I think the overall noise is going to be less impactive on communities," said Jeff Hamiel, executive director of the airports commission.
Condensed air traffic
Making greater use of satellites and other technology to guide planes, the new system will sharply reduce back-and-forth talk between air traffic controllers and pilots. Fewer conversations means fewer mistakes, said Carl Rydeen, assistant air traffic manager at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport.
Arriving planes would follow existing routes and the new system isn't expected to have much effect on their noise within 5 miles of the airport. But the technology will condense many takeoffs into tighter routes.
One route would aim more flights over the Minnesota River Valley in the southern suburbs. Another would move flights over Cedar Avenue in Eagan and near Burnsville.
"We're shifting planes that aren't there today," Rydeen said of the new Cedar Avenue flight corridor, which could absorb 63 departures daily. The idea is to reduce air traffic over more populated areas of Eagan.
"We are very happy to see that go away because the noise in our community is horrible," homeowner Ron Goldser said at a recent Eagan City Council meeting.
Goldser is an attorney for a firm whose lawsuit against the Airports Commission several years ago resulted in millions of dollars in subsidized sound-proofing for thousands of metro homes. He met recently with airport and FAA officials about flight noise over his home.
"Do I know that I'm getting more response from them because of where I work?" asked Goldser. "I don't know. Have they been very responsive to me? Yes, they have."
Goldser said he has pressed the FAA for a broader solution to noise. "While I'd be happy to solve it in my back yard, if there's a way to solve it for everybody, isn't that all the better?" he asked.
Who gets the noise?
The FAA and the airport recently briefed officials of Richfield, Eagan, Mendota Heights and Minneapolis and stressed that the new routes would reduce emissions and slightly shrink the noisiest contour around the airport, where homeowners qualified over the years for the government-subsidized soundproofing.
Yet the new routes could result in more takeoffs -- and more frequent moderate noise -- over other areas. Some homeowners near Cedar Avenue worry that shifting flights over the highway could bring them new noise, said Charles Thorkildson, a member of an Eagan advisory group on airport noise.
There could be fewer departures close to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, but a busier path more than a half mile to the south.
"We'd be smack underneath," noted Erin Keefe, who lives at 55th and Oliver and looked at a map of the prospective route. "That could cause a bit of stress."
Neighbor Rick Chamlin agreed.
"Right now, it's not bad," he said of the flights. "I surely would not be happy to see more planes."
Farther south in Richfield, the system would send more departures over Crosstown Hwy. 62 and over an area where homes have been sound-proofed. It was the city's choice because it diverted planes that sometimes fly over more-exposed homes, said Tom Fitzhenry, a Richfield City Council member who also serves on a metrowide noise oversight panel advising the Airports Commission.
"We are kind of picking an area where it's going to be noisy," Fitzhenry acknowledged. "There's always the battle of who gets the noise."
It is unclear what effect the new condensed flight system would have on departure patterns in Minneapolis neighborhoods just north of the airport. Residents of the Keewaydin, Ericsson and Standish neighborhoods complained last year after the FAA routed more flights over them to correct conflicts that led to a near-crash. The agency later dispersed some of that traffic.
"Around Lake Nokomis, there's going to be a swath of airplanes still up there," Rydeen said. "They are not going to be that condensed."
Other officials backed away from identifying winners or losers under the system.
"There are ... people who are going to be happy about it, and there are going to be people who aren't," said Chad Leqve, the noise expert for the Airports Commission. "It's premature to say ... exactly where that line is going to be between those that are happy and those that are not with this program."
Commission Chairman Dan Boivin declined to comment on the pros and cons. Airport spokesman Patrick Hogan said Boivin is awaiting a recommendation from the metrowide noise oversight panel.
The change is being considered at a time when the airport also is contemplating a $1.5 billion expansion to accommodate future increases in traffic.
The new technology is being rolled out around the nation and the FAA reports no increase in complaints about noise where it has been adopted. But the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is unusual in its close proximity to many homes.
Colvin Roy and fellow Minneapolis Council Member John Quincy worry that the system is on the verge of being approved without adequate review. They point to a move a year ago by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., where the technology is manufactured, to exempt the system from environmental review if officials predicted "no net increase in noise levels."
The Minneapolis City Council objected that the exemption would block a review if some areas experienced increased noise and others didn't. The exemption wasn't approved, but another provision in the law also might be used for "streamlining the processes of environmental review," said Emily Tranter, who lobbies for the city in Washington, D.C.
"We're not comfortable with it," Quincy said. "There's a lot more to learn."
Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504