Focus Shifts to McCain and Flake to Help Solve Phoenix Airplane Noise Problem

Congressman Ruben Gallego stood in front of a packed audience of Phoenix residents Monday night and told them that the extent to which he can help force the FAA to reconsider the changes it made to Sky Harbor’s flight paths last fall is limited.

“What we need now is to shift the focus to [Senator John] McCain and [Senator Jeff] Flake,” he said. “If we want a quick and dynamic fight, McCain and Flake have to get involved.”

Gallego, who consistently has been a staunch advocate for the thousands of residents who woke up on September 18, 2014, and discovered they suddenly lived under the heavy overhead air traffic of the FAA-mandated new flight paths, patiently explained what he has done so far at the federal level to try to get his constituents relief, and what he imagines the fight going forward will look like.

When the FAA changed the flight paths out of Sky Harbor Airport late last year, they did so without notifying the public or asking for input from the city’s Aviation Department. The agency skirted a full environment review and concluded the changes in Phoenix would have no significant impact on the population.

But one look at last night’s crowd — and the crowds that have attended meeting and after meeting about the issue for months — is proof enough that what the FAA posited is inaccurate.

Thus, the crux of Gallego’s efforts — like those of the Phoenix City Council and Sky Harbor Aviation Department — has been a simple demand for “the FAA to go back through the process and get public input, take the proper steps, and find a solution [that works for everyone.]”

On top of the changes made last fall, the FAA is moving forward with a plan to redesign the entire airspace for the greater Phoenix area, creating what’s called a metroplex, a coordinated airspace system between airports in close proximity.

Earlier this month, Gallego successfully got an amendment attached to the House’s 2016 Transportation spending bill that would “prevent the FAA from moving forward with redesigning the regional airspace while the serious issues resulting from last September’s changes . . . remain unresolved.”

“We had a very good short victory,” Gallego said of the amendment, “and we have to make sure we preserve it” because, as he explained last night, the FAA will try it’s hardest to kill the amendment in the final Senate version of the bill. And it will undoubtedly be successful unless McCain and Flake fight to keep it in — “If they don’t get actively involved, then this effort dies.”

Both McCain and Flake have sent the FAA letters stating their concern about the unresolved flight path issue in Phoenix, but many residents see their efforts as, at best, half-hearted.

“You pay taxes, you vote, this is important to you,” Gallego told the crowd. “Where are those senators? Until you hear [a commitment to fight] come from their mouths, the letters have little power.”

Phoenix City Council members Laura Pastor and Michael Nowakowski, both of whom attended Monday night’s event, encouraged audience members to hound McCain and Flake until they have no choice but to make this issue a priority. “Jam up their phones so they realize it’s a serious issue,” Pastor said, moments after she listed the local and D.C. office numbers for the senators.

“You pay taxes, you vote, this is important to you,” Gallego told the crowd. “Where are those senators?"

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Also at Monday night’s meeting was Chad Makovsky of the Aviation Department, who gave an update on the process and progress of the lawsuit Phoenix filed a few weeks ago against the FAA. One of the more lively moments of the evening came after he answered a question about whether citizens could contribute to the legal fees.

“The Aviation Department is picking up the tab on his,” he said, “which means the airlines that fly out of the airport are paying.”

The crowd clapped and gave shouts of support — since the flight path changes are saving the airlines millions of dollar in fuel costs, many have wondered how much of the FAA’s resistance has to do with pressure from the private sector.

Makovsky said he has had some discussions with Southwest Airlines and US Airways about helping to sway the FAA, but it remains to be seen how much influence they can have — or more importantly, how willing they will be to use their leverage.

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