Minnesota needs a statewide airports solution

  • Article by: R.T. RYBAK
  • Updated: March 23, 2013 - 5:46 PM

Our long-term airport solution must use assets statewide.

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Photo: Airplane being guided to gate.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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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.

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