Congressional Leaders Urge U.S. Senate to Help Phoenix Fight the FAA

Four Arizona congressional representatives sent U.S. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake a letter urging them to introduce an amendment in the 2016 Senate Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill that would demand the FAA address the airplane noise problem disrupting the lives of thousands of Phoenix residents.

Congressman Ruben Gallego, who represents the district most affected by the noise, successfully attached a similar amendment to the House version of the THUD bill last month, and he’s taking the lead on pressuring McCain and Flake to step up and do the same in the Senate.

Gallego’s amendment bars the FAA from moving forward with a plan to redesign the greater Phoenix airspace system (encompassing airports as far away as Tucson) until it resolved the noise problems associated with last year’s flight path changes at Sky Harbor.

On September 18, 2014, the FAA unilaterally mandated that the team at Sky Harbor begin using new and more streamlined flight paths that ended up redirecting air traffic over heavily populated areas of downtown Phoenix and the Laveen area. The changes were part of a nation-wide airspace upgrade called NextGen, and were intended to save fuel, increase safety, and facilitate a higher volume of air traffic at any given time.

But those who now live with near-constant and conversation-interrupting airplane noise say the benefits of NextGen do not outweigh the cons.

“The FAA directly caused serious harm to the citizens of Phoenix and lowered their quality of life. They didn't consult with community leaders or seek local input before making the flight path changes, and so far they've done nothing to address this problem,” writes Gallego in an email to New Times. “I urge Senators McCain and Flake to stand by our constituents and work to ensure that the language of my amendment is included in the Senate version of the [THUD] bill."

In addition to Gallego, Representatives David Schweikert, Ann Kirkpatrick, and Kyrsten Sinema signed the letter given to McCain and Flake, and coincidently, it comes on the heels of a letter McCain and Flake drafted about the issue. The two asked South Dakota Senator John Thune and Florida Senator Bill Nelson (both of whom sit on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee) to consider what happened to Phoenix in the up-coming FAA Reauthorization Act.

“As your Committee drafts [this legislation], we wish to bring to your attention a matter of serious concern for many of our constituents in Arizona who have been affected by flight path changes around Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. We ask that you consider, as part of that legislation, options to address the situation already underway in Phoenix—a situation almost certain to arise in the future in other communities around the country—by requiring substantive community participation in the process.”

How seriously McCain and Flake are about remedying the situation is a matter of frequent public debate, but everyone agrees their backing is critical.

“It's essential that our Senators got involved,” says Steve Dreiseszun, a downtown Phoenix resident affected by the noise, adding that he worries Gallego’s THUD amendment won’t stand up in the Senate version.

“The Senate may elect to do [things] differently, via the [FAA] Reauthorization process, [but] the concern for me is what that [will look] like? The FAA seems hell bent on minimal response. What if they decide to participate in a ‘public process’ and still do nothing? I think the [McCain-Flake] letter is a good first step that will need to be ratcheted up if the FAA won't budge.”

Last month, the city of Phoenix filed a lawsuit against the FAA for the flight path changes, arguing that the federal agency purposefully bypassed certain regulations and used a flawed environmental assessment to move its agenda forward. For months, elected officials held out on a lawsuit, calling it a final recourse, while residents urged them to file. But what once seemed like a quick panacea is increasingly appearing to be a long, drawn-out, costly litigation process. Both elected officials and residents are now throwing their weight behind restricting the FAA’s actions, thereby forcing it to act, by adding language to federal bills while waiting for the lawsuit to crawl through the court system.

Gallego tells New Times the language of his amendment, which he’s encouraging the Senate to copy, “will hold the FAA accountable, and protect others in the region from suffering the same misfortune as Phoenix. Our constituents have been severely harmed by the noise resulting from the flight path changes and the FAA needs to do something to address it ASAP."

At a meeting last week, Gallego warned that the FAA will try its hardest to kill the wording of the legislation, and will probably succeed unless McCain and Flake fight to keep it in — “If they don’t get actively involved, then this effort dies,” he said.

“I would welcome the ire of McCain and Flake in a public hearing on this matter,” says Dreiseszun. “The FAA is rapidly losing the opportunity to get this off their plate ahead of other city's Metroplexes. That seems unwise as it will only fuel the groundswell against NextGen. Phoenix is a lightening rod now.”

Read the two letters below:

Ruben Gallego's Letter

McCain-Flake Letter

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