Phoenix Is Finally Suing the FAA Over Airplane Noise

The city of Phoenix is filing a lawsuit today against the Federal Aviation Administration for unilaterally imposing flight-path changes at Sky Harbor International Airport last September without due process. The changes have affected thousands of Valley residents and were made without consulting the city or its aviation department.

The decision to go to court comes after more than seven months of relentless airplane noise and many failed or ultimately futile efforts at negotiating with the agency to solve the problem. Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher sent the FAA a letter Monday afternoon saying the city intends “to file a petition for judicial review.”

The new flight paths were implemented on September 18, 2014, as part of the FAA’s national aviation upgrade (called NextGen) and “have exposed tens of thousands of Phoenix residents to intolerable levels of noise that affect sleep, conversation, and daily life,” Zuercher says. “Residents were never given an opportunity to have a voice in the very process that has destroyed their quality of life.”

For months, city leaders called litigation the final recourse and said they would go down this route only after exhausting all other options — the city has met with FAA officials in private working groups and other closed-door meetings, it’s conducted noise tests and used the FAA’s own data to demonstrate the extent of the noise impact, and it’s hired outside consultants to help draft flight path alternatives.

But according to Zuercher, though the FAA stated publicly that it would work with the city to fix the noise problems, the agency “has not considered measures that would significantly reduce noise and, in fact has now made a final decision that such measures are not open for consideration.”

After speaking with FAA regional director Glen Martin on Monday, and hearing again that the agency will not consider anything the city deems a meaningful change, Phoenix finally reached the litigation tipping point.

The “FAA has repeatedly been making oral and written commitments since October 2014 that it will address noise impacts,” Zuercher writes, “however, it appears to have been stringing the City along with these promises.”

“Unfortunately [suing] is a necessary thing,” Mayor Greg Stanton tells New Times. “We tried hard to work with the FAA, but there was no meaningful action on their part. We were put in a position where this was the only option we had left.”

When asked about the cost of litigation, Stanton said “obviously [suing] is going to cost the city some money, but if we don’t, it’s going to cost the city more. We can’t afford to have the downtown neighborhoods be anything but popular areas with lots of development.”

(Many residents of the affected downtown historic areas note that there are more houses for sale than they’ve ever seen before. They worry a mass exodus will re-blight the neighborhoods they’ve worked so hard to revitalize in recent decades.)

City Councilman Michael Nowakowski, a vocal supporter of litigation from the beginning, says he will continue to collaborate with other affected cities and work with Arizona’s federal delegation to enact legislation “that would reverse this type of action and prevent future actions by the FAA that have such unacceptable outcomes to our communities.”

“Phoenix remains open to a serious and good-faith effort by the FAA to fix its broken process for implementing airspace changes and the resulting serious community impacts,” Zuercher writes in his letter. But “the community is suffering and we will not rest until we have made every effort to find noise relief.”

View what Phoenix filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals here


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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser