FAA Getting Scathing Letter from Phoenix Officials

Phoenix City Manager Ed Zuercher has sent a strongly worded letter to the FAA, admonishing the agency for falsely characterizing its intent to work with the city and correct the noise problems associated with last year's flight-path changes at Sky Harbor Airport.

"I regret to say that the FAA has lost the confidence of the Phoenix community, and the city cannot participate in a process that cannot deliver meaningful analysis," Zuercher wrote.

His letter came in response to FAA Regional Administrator Glen Martin's April 14 letter to the city, which many criticized for its insulting tone and distortion of facts. In the letter, Martin accused the city of not being an active participant in its Performance Based Navigation Group tasked with adjusting the flight paths out of Sky Harbor Airport, and comprised of FAA officials/technicians and representatives from the city and airlines. The group has met three times, most recently April 13.

The content of Martin's letter was so outrageous that Mayor Greg Stanton held an emergency press conference to address the issue, and scheduled a special City Council Session for April 16.

See also: -Phoenix May Sue the FAA After Agency Allegedly Lied in Letter to City -Old Sky Harbor Flight Paths Had Less Impact, Data Shows

It was in that meeting that details about how the PBN working group operated--namely, how it was doomed to fail--first came to light. The FAA declined to attend that session, and Zuercher's letter provides a sharp and succinct overview of the information presented.

"The City thought that engaging in the FAA's process would result in meaningful changes in flight tracks. However, the city has now learned that FAA structured the PBN Working Group process deliberately to avoid making any changes to the [new flight paths] that would have a substantial effect on noise."

Former Congressman Ed Pastor, who helped represent the city in the PBN working group, explained that the process "was not a negotiation." Those from the FAA in the group received an order from the highest level that they were not allowed to accept any flight path alternative that required a new federal action, and the litany of regulations and environmental assessments that go along with one.

Pastor said that he and the two others from Phoenix in the group "were told that the three of us failed to represent the city well so [the FAA] would write a letter" and present its conclusions. "The working plan that you received was the result of the working group wanting to propose what they wanted."

Zuercher's letter also addressed Martin's accusation that the city didn't offer ideas or suggestions for flight-path adjustments--"your statement," he wrote, "is simply not true"--as well as the FAA's purportedly distorted balance between fuel efficiency and noise. When Martin's letter suggested that Phoenix simply invest more money in noise mitigation, suffice it to say, the comment did not go over well with anyone in the city.

"The disturbing reality is that the city, the Federal Government, and the airlines will spend far more on an annualized basis to manage this significant issue than the airlines will realize in fuel savings," Zuercher's letter states. "The small savings also pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars the city has spent on noise mitigation in recent decades, the benefits of which have been eroded by the FAA's unilateral change."

The September 18 changes were part of NextGen, a national effort to modernize air traffic control, and included installing a safer and more accurate area navigation technology called RNAV. Residents and the Aviation Department want the RNAV technology at Sky Harbor, and so have asked many times why the FAA cannot use it with the old paths. The FAA always responded that the process would be lengthy--probably taking years to implement--and was not the best solution. Since city leaders believed the FAA wanted to work with them to solve the noise problem, they took the agency at its word.

But Martin's letter proved "the FAA has zero intent of solving noise issues," Mayor Stanton said. "It has shown us that they don't think they're accountable."

Sent late last week, Zuercher's letter says "the FAA limited the scope of the PBN working group to avoid examining noise relief, [precluding its ability] to move routes more than 0.3 miles." A more detailed addendum to his letter explains "this meant that the FAA ruled out any movement of the flight tracks that would make any significant noise improvement even before it began its analysis and before soliciting the views of the city. This is the very definition of an opaque, pre-determined process that is nothing more than a symbolic exercise." (Emphasis our own.)

"We've given the FAA all sorts of opportunities to sit down with us, and I believe we've taken it to the limit," Councilman Michael Nowakowski said in response to Martin's letter. "How can we trust the FAA?"

Read Zuercher's Letter here, and the more detailed addendum here

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