FAA at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix

Valley residents attend a community meeting with the FAA at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix to voice concerns over flight paths out of Sky Harbor Airport implemented in 2014. 

Scottsdale officials and residents are angry with the FAA after the agency declined to alter much-maligned flight paths over northern parts of the city despite a nearly-$200,000 city-funded lobbying effort.

The flight paths – part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen plan to increase efficiency in 2014 – resulted in a successful legal challenge by the City of Phoenix and some of its historic neighborhoods, which argued the FAA did not do proper public outreach to figure out how the path changes would affect them.

Other Valley residents, including those in northern Scottsdale, were also affected by noise as a result of the new routes.

After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of Phoenix and the neighborhoods in 2017, the FAA signed onto an agreement requiring it to return westbound departure routes to “approximate, as closely as possible, the pre-September 2014 flight paths,” and conduct outreach efforts with other communities affected by the NextGen changes.

The first part of the agreement did not affect northern Scottsdale residents, who own properties under eastbound departure routes.

Still, the community meetings held by the FAA last April gave residents hope the agency would eventually address their concerns.

“It appears we finally got their attention,” said late Scottsdale resident John Nolan at a community meeting hosted by the FAA in 2019.

Nolan was a member of SCANA or the Scottsdale Coalition for Airplane Noise Abatement.

But the FAA has announced it would take no further actions under a legal agreement with Phoenix stemming from the city’s successful legal challenge against new flight paths out of Sky Harbor International Airport.

The decision means the agency will not address noise concerns from Scottsdale residents.

“Obviously it’s a major disappointment because I really think we have been led to believe, even by their submissions, they would be open to some consideration, certainly with what they proposed back to us,” Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane said.

Scottsdale paid $80,000 to international law firm Covington & Burling over the course of two contracts in 2018 to lobby the FAA to modify eastern routes to address Scottsdale resident concerns.

The city also contracted with JDA Aviation Technology Solutions in November 2018, for up to $115,000 to provide expert recommendations on flight paths over Scottsdale. But the FAA rejected JDA’s proposed modifications to conceptual routes presented by the FAA at its community meetings.

“Disappointed,” Councilwoman Suzanne Klapp said of the FAA’s Jan. 10 decision. “I had hoped they’d consider the alternate routes we were discussing.”

SCANA founder Bud Kern did not mince words in the wake of the FAA announcement.

“The FAA clearly used a strategy to string along the public as long it could, knowing all along it was not going to offer relief to our communities,” Kern said, adding:

“The FAA is an arrogant bureaucracy only intent on serving the airlines and its own self-interests. It has no conscience about ruining the well being of thousands of residents and the communities they live in.”

Kern argued the original 2017 D.C. court ruling required the FAA to return all routes, not just the westerly routes over Phoenix, to their pre-2014 configurations. 

The ruling stated the court vacated “the September 18, 2014 order, implementing the new flight departure routes at Sky Harbor International Airport.” The agreement between the FAA and Phoenix later stipulated only the western routes would be affected.

“While the parties later settled on an agreement that only included the western departures, the Court’s ruling was never revised to say western only,” Kern said.

Kern, a DC Ranch resident, said the 2014 NextGen routes disrupted the peace and quiet that was a major selling point for him and many of his neighbors in settling in the city’s northern reaches.

“Most residents bought out here for the quiet of the desert and the Scottsdale lifestyle,” Kern said. “We enjoyed it for years and then things changed.”

SCANA spent years lobbying the FAA to take its concerns seriously and was encouraged by last year’s community meetings, held under step two of the court agreement.

The FAA showed two conceptual changes, which split existing east departure and arrival routes into two routes. This conceptual change would not eliminate plane traffic over areas affected by the 2014 changes but would likely have decreased their concentration.

Scottsdale proposed its own changes but the FAA rejected the proposal.

In a report issued by the FAA about the feedback it received from 2019 meetings, the agency cited safety concerns with the proposed routes for air traffic controllers and aircraft flying in the Valley.

The report stated the JDA recommendations would have created conflicts with existing heavily-used routes. 

FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor said at the April meeting “we are just here to listen” and referred to the conceptual flight paths as “drawings on the back of a napkin” had not even begun to go through the months or years of feasibility studies required to make them a reality.

Still, Kern could not help but feel hopeful at the meeting.

“I’m excited the FAA came to these meetings with concepts to provide relief,” Kern said at the time. “These concepts have a lot of promise.”

In retrospect, the agency’s hedging should have been a red flag.

Gregor, the FAA spokesperson, said the agency is not pursuing the conceptual routes and has not done any feasibility or environmental reviews of the conceptual routes.

“The FAA has not proposed any new routes in the Phoenix area,” Gregor said. “As we noted in our Jan. 10 update, even though we have concluded the Implementation Agreement, we intend to continue the dialogue with local stakeholders about issues of interest to them, as we do in communities throughout the United States.”

When asked if the FAA has any specific plans to continue dialog, Gregor said “We do not have any specific meetings or discussions planned at this time.”

Lane, the Scottsdale mayor, is not holding his breath.

“Certainly from what they’ve indicated – yeah, they’re done,” Lane said. 

Scottsdale Councilmembers Klapp and Virginia Korte used the same word to describe their reactions to the FAA’s Jan. 10 announcement: disappointed.

“Very disappointed,” Korte said.

Whether this disappointment will translate into litigation is still unclear – though there is some indication the city is leaning in that direction since it is renewing its contract with Covington & Burling.

“There’s really not an opening other than an opening we may make,” Lane said.

City council met in executive session on Jan. 5 to receive legal advice regarding the NextGen flight paths out of Sky Harbor.

Later that evening, council voted unanimously to approve a new $40,000 contract with Covington & Burling allowing the city to pursue “political engagement and legal or legislative remedies,” according to city documents.

The city has had the support of the state’s congressional delegation in the past, though it has not made much of a difference.

Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema wrote to the FAA expressing concern the agency was not doing enough to engage residents and urging the FAA to find alternatives to lessen the noise impact on residents.

Both the late Sen. John McCain and former Sen. Jeff Flake had also advocated for changes to appease Arizona residents in the past.

Kern said SCANA would like to see a legal challenge to force the FAA to change the routes.

“This could be undertaken by the City of Scottsdale, or a coalition of public and private parties,” Kern said. “SCANA is in contact with the City of Scottsdale and is encouraging, and hoping, it will pursue legal action.”

Korte declined to comment on any plans to sue the FAA, citing council’s executive session.

Gregor likewise declined to comment on the likelihood of litigation, only stating “We don’t speculate about the possibility of litigation.”