Damning Report About PHX Aviation Department Released

The Acting Director for the City of Phoenix’s Aviation Department has been demoted and suspended for 40 hours without pay in the wake of an investigation into the planning of the September 18 flight path changes at Sky Harbor International Airport.

Ever since the changes, which were part of a national airspace upgrade called NextGen, thousands of Phoenix residents have had to deal with near-constant plane noise over their homes. Almost immediately people wanted to know who was responsible, and how the situation could be fixed.

In the last nine months, during dozens of city council and community outreach meetings, Aviation Department leaders have repeatedly said that the FAA made these changes unilaterally, and that only “technical experts” from the department had consulted with the FAA about “technical plans.”

But the report released yesterday shows this isn’t exactly true.

The 24-page document highlights a timeline that begins in 2012, which is when the FAA first approached the Aviation Department’s noise abatement specialist, James Davies, about the plans to change the flight paths at Sky Harbor. Between 2012 and when the change occurred, at least six Aviation Department officials were aware of the changes—and the faulty environmental review that the stated the changes would have no impact on residents—yet did nothing to challenge the FAA’s plans.

City Manager Ed Zuercher calls the report “disappointing,” and explains that he commissioned an investigation after Phoenix residents gave him a recording from a noise conference in California. The tape states that a city official from Phoenix knew about the changes long-before they occurred.

“We had done some internal review,” Zuercher says, but after hearing the recording, “that’s when it became clear we had to [do the investigation].”

Included in the list of six employees who knew about the coming changes is retired Aviation Department Director Danny Murphy. After being briefed in September 2013, Murphy reportedly “was not focused upon any potential challenging or questioning of the propriety of the [changes]. Rather, the focus was upon managing the public reaction to the implementation.” Murphy retired shortly after the changes went into effect and has not spoken publicly about the fallout.

According to the report, there is no one person or one event that caused the breakdown in communication—“multiple failures occurred on multiple levels along an extended time continuum”—but to some residents, it revealed “gross negligence” on the part of aviation leaders.

“This is disgusting,” says Nicole Marquez, a local activist for the airplane noise issue. “There is stink on everyone, and everyone needs to be in big trouble.” She feels like Fisher and others have purposefully mislead—if not lied—to the residents of Phoenix for the last nine months.

“The real rub is that all along we’ve been told we should trust the Aviation Department, that they’re our friends. We’ve been told continuously that they’ve been working for us, that they had no idea this was going on.” And then comes this report.

“It’s embarrassing when you have to admit the shortfalls of your agency,” Zuercher says, adding that he sent the report to every city department director as a lesson in the importance of asking tough questions to federal agencies when the interest of the community is at stake.

He understands the frustration people feel, and how in hindsight, “it’s all perfectly clear. There were maps with lines—how could they not assume?” And even if Aviation Department employees pointed out the problems ahead of time, “would it have made a difference? I can’t say,” he says. “The FAA makes decisions unilaterally.”

What’s more, the FAA “did not directly contact any senior member of the Aviation Department prior to the fall of 2014,” which is when the changes were made. “Instead, for reasons unknown…the FAA chose to make its sole point of contact at the lowest levels of the Aviation Department.” Zuercher thinks this was a deliberate strategy intended to mislead Phoenix and downplay the problems the agency knew would occur.

“The FAA told [the State Historic Preservation Office] and our people that there would be no impact from the changes. We should have done our own checks, we shouldn’t have taken them at their word…We have to own our part [of the problem] and we do.” But as far as he’s concerned, the most damning culprit in this report is the FAA. “This report should be a cautionary tale to other cities.”

In a statement released late last night, City Councilman Michael Nowakowski said that while he is “disappointed to learn of the results of the investigation…[which exposed] cracks in our management system,” that at the main takeaway should still be the myriad ways “the FAA failed to engage the community for input and chose not to perform an environmental impact study prior to making the flight path changes.”

Three of the six involved employees are likely to receive either a written reprimand, a demotion, or some form of suspension. (Fisher has been demoted and suspended, and according to Zuercher accepted the discipline professionally.) The other two employees, Murphy and Judy Ross, no longer work for the department.

“A long string of sub-par job performances occurred between August 2012 and September 2014,” the report concludes. But the biggest problem was that “no individual conducted or required a critical analysis of what, if anything, could be done in order to place concerns of [Phoenix] stakeholders before the FAA.”  

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