U.S. Senate Passes Bill Requiring the FAA Re-Evaluate Noisy Flight Path Changes in Phoenix

The U.S. Senate passed a bill today that includes an amendment requiring that the Federal Aviation Administration re-evaluate the flight path changes implemented in September 2014 at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport.

The amendment, tacked on to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), was sponsored by Senator John McCain and will now go to the president's office to either be signed or vetoed.

In an e-mail from the Phoenix city manager, Ed Zuercher explains that "The Act includes language that would specifically require the FAA to re-evaluate RNAV impacts to Phoenix neighborhoods and consider alternative flight paths." (RNAV, or area navigation, refers in this case to the flight paths.)

The actual text says that for all flight paths changed after February 2012, the FAA administrator must review those changes "to determine if the implementation of the procedure had a significant effect on the human environment in the community in which the airport is located."

This amendment "gives the city a new lever that requires the FAA to seriously review alternative flight path options."

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While it doesn't demand the FAA to revert back to the old flight paths, it does require that they consider whether the old flight paths were better.

"[This amendment] gives the city a new lever that requires the FAA to seriously review alternative flight path options," Zuercher writes.

And to those who have lived with the roaring noise of airplanes over their homes for the last two years, this is a big victory.

"Finally. I am pleased to see some positive news coming out of Washington DC. After more than two years of effort dealing with the flight path changes here, [Phoenix] has something to work with," Steve Dreiseszun, a member of the Phoenix community who has been affected by the noise and active in trying to get it resolved, writes in a message to New Times.

"The bill includes provisions that will require public notice and community consultation in advance of new procedural implementations by the FAA, important for future changes. More importantly for us, the bill includes language specific to the changes made here in [Phoenix]."

As New Times detailed in a cover story last year, the FAA's unilateral changes to the flight paths in and out of Sky Harbor airport came without warning, and prompted a huge public outcry because thousands of people were suddenly affected by the loud roars of airplanes.

The changes were part of the FAA's Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), an effort to reorganize air traffic control management and coordination efforts to keep pace with global aviation trends and make things safer and more reliable – it's like upgrading from radio waves to GPS.

No one thinks NextGen itself is bad, but what has people in Phoenix (and all across the United States) so upset is that the flight paths changes happened with virtually no notice to, let alone input from, the city or homeowners, which allowed the agency to skip out on doing an full environmental review and to conclude that the changes would have no significant impact.

In June 2015, the city filed a lawsuit against the FAA for failing to do an adequate environmental impact statement before making the changes. Asked how this new law could affect the case, city manager Zuercher writes, "while this doesn't directly change anything in Phoenix yet, we will continue pursuing our case against the FAA's actions." (The case is still in the pre-oral argument phase.)

"While this doesn't directly change anything in Phoenix yet, we will continue pursuing our case against the FAA's actions."

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He adds that the city is "encouraged that a requirement to reevaluate the impacts on Phoenix neighborhoods consider alternatives is included in the NDAA. Thanks are due to our senators and the entire delegation."

Since Sky Harbor was built in 1928, the city of Phoenix has quite literally grown up around it. The traditional flight paths, which had planes ascending and descending over a nine-mile stretch of the Salt River before turning or landing, greatly influenced residential development patterns.

Prior to September 2014, the brunt of the noise was concentrated in industrial or otherwise uninhabited areas, but the new paths require pilots to turn after three miles, which means the aircrafts are lower to the ground, and therefore louder, when they fly over homes. To make matters worse for residents, the new flight paths streamlined the flight paths so that all planes fly one after another — sometimes every two minutes — over the same area.

After months of public outcry and some very heated comments at the Phoenix City Council, local elected officials took up the cause with gusto. They mobilized the legal arm of the city, and got Rep. Ruben Gallego and retired Rep. Ed Pastor on board.

After much pleading – and thousands of angry calls and letters — Sen. McCain and Sen. Flake joined the cause, and worked to get an amendment requiring the FAA to look at Phoenix's paths into the NDAA.

Yet while many are hailing the passage of the NDAA as a victory, even if the president signs it, there's no guarantee that the flight paths will change.

"The language is typical of legislation but the intent is clear. We now have a tool to achieve the consideration from the FAA that should have been part of the process from the beginning," explains Dreiseszun, the local activist.

"This is a start. There is much work to do."

**Editor's Note 12/8/16 2pm Rep. Ruben Gallego e-mailed the following statement to New Times:

“The aircraft noise resulting from flight path changes at Sky Harbor has caused severe disruptions for many of my constituents - eroding their quality of life, impacting their health, lowering their property values, and disrupting their businesses. The language in the NDAA is a step in the right direction toward holding the FAA accountable for the consequences of their opaque decision-making process and making sure they are responsive to our concerns.

“I want to thank Senators Flake and McCain for taking steps to address this ongoing problem. I am committed to working with them and my colleagues in the House until the FAA takes action and peace and quiet is restored to the greater Phoenix Metropolitan area.”

**Editor's Note 12/8/16 2:30 pm — Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton e-mailed the following statement to New Times:

“I am grateful to Senator McCain for successfully working to include this important language in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Senator McCain and our entire Congressional delegation have been strong advocates for Phoenix residents whose quality of life has been severely impacted by FAA flight path changes.”
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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser