Arizona’s senior U.S. Senator has weighed in on the side of her constituents in the battle over FAA flight path changes from 2014 that resulted in a barrage of flight-noise complaints from residents throughout the Valley, including in northern Scottsdale.
The flight path changes were made as part of the FAA’s NextGen program aimed at increasing efficiency.
Despite recent efforts by the FAA to reach out to the community — as stipulated by a lawsuit settlement agreement with City of Phoenix — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema expressed concern in a letter to the FAA that the agency may not be doing enough to address those issues.
“I am concerned the FAA is not fully engaging with all stakeholders affected by Sky Harbor flight procedures,” Sinema wrote in an April 29 letter to FAA Acting Administrator Daniel K. Elwell.
Sinema, the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, acknowledged the work the FAA has already done to comply with a 2017 settlement stemming from a legal challenge by the City of Phoenix and its historic communities.
In 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit sided with Phoenix and its neighborhoods, finding that the FAA did not conduct studies required by federal environmental laws.
Under that settlement, The FAA agreed to return western departure routes that were the subject of the lawsuit to “approximate, as closely as possible, the pre-September 2014 flight paths,” according to the FAA, and then conduct further outreach with communities about other routes affected by the 2014 NextGen changes.
Those initial changes did not affect the eastbound routes causing most issues for residents in northern Scottsdale.
Those eastbound routes figured prominently in Sinema’s letter to the FAA.
“I urge the FAA to establish and continue dialog with elected leaders representing communities affected by the eastbound flight procedures and to continue working on finding alternatives to lessen the noise impacts on the residents under the eastbound flight paths,” Sinema wrote.
Still, Sinema recognized “the FAA’s willingness to hold three ‘Step 2’ workshops” in Phoenix to take in more feedback from communities affected by other 2014 route changes, including eastbound departure routes.
However, she expressed skepticism about whether or not the agency will conduct thorough outreach.
“Our concerns come from communication with community leaders and from FAA’s checkered history,” read a statement to the Progress from Senator Sinema’s office. “The D.C. Circuit highlighted its very poor coordination with local governments and stakeholders when it overturned the flight paths in 2017.”
In April, the FAA held open house meetings throughout Phoenix. The closest meeting to northern Scottsdale – held at Pinnacle Peak High School in Phoenix – was well attended by Scottsdale residents and members of the City Council, including Mayor Jim Lane.
At the April meetings, the FAA unveiled potential route changes that could lessen the concentration of planes over specific areas by splitting existing routes into two.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor cautioned that the potential changes are conceptual in nature and referred to them as “drawings on the back of a napkin.”
Lane, the Scottsdale Mayor, also reiterated that it was not a settled matter.
“The idea that they are proposing some conceptual shifts means there has been some consideration for our concerns,” Lane said. “I’m heartened but this is not a settled matter.”
Senator Sinema’s office echoed that sentiment.
“The three town halls were a good start,” the office’s statement said. “We hope to see continued communication and coordination between the FAA and stakeholders.”
Gregor said he could not comment on the timetable to consider or approve those routes, but he did say that typically it takes 18 to 24 months for new routes to go through the necessary feasibility studies.
Despite that somewhat hedged approach by the FAA, residents who attended the meetings were still cautiously optimistic about the progress made.
“It appears we finally got their attention,” said John Nolan of the Scottsdale Coalition for Airplane Noise Abatement, or SCANA.
Still, SCANA’s ultimate goal is have the flight paths returned to their pre-NextGen state.
The City of Scottsdale is exploring its own solutions to the problem and has spent money to contract a lobbying firm and flight path consultant on the issue.
That consultant, JDA Aviation Technology Solutions, will use Sky Harbor Airport flight track data and analyze the FAA’s conceptual paths and also develop alternatives paths. It will submit a formal comment from the city to the FAA.
Based on Sinema’s letter, it appears Scottsdale will continue to have the support of at least part of the state’s Congressional delegation.
“I will continue to work with the FAA and communities on these important issues that impact Arizona families,” Sinema wrote.
There is some precedence for Sinema’s involvement in the issue as both the late Senator John McCain and former Senator Jeff Flake advocated for changes to appease Arizona residents.
The senators both wrote to the FAA on residents’ behalf and included a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 that the FAA take steps to mitigate any negative effects that routes have on a community that a municipality can prove.
Sinema’s office did not rule out further legislative solutions to the issue.
“We will see how the FAA continues to implement the settlement and work with other affected communities,” it said. “Legislation is always an option, as is oversight from Senator Sinema’s position as the Ranking Member on the Aviation and Space Subcommittee.”