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More noise for better airplane efficiency: Minneapolis, Edina neighborhoods fighting the plan

The Federal Aviation Administration won’t decide until next year whether to fully implement a new system that would steer more Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport flights over southwest Minneapolis and Edina neighborhoods.

But efforts to prevent the move — and the increased noise that would result — are gearing up on two fronts.

First, some background: The FAA wants to install navigation technology at U.S. airports that uses satellites to guide planes more precisely as they take off and land. The switch would concentrate flights that now are diffused across wide paths into tighter, narrower bands.

The FAA says the change would increase efficiency and reduce delays, fuel burn and emissions.

After residents and elected officials objected, the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) voted in 2012 to recommend partial implementation — exempting two runways that would affect southwest Minneapolis and Edina.

Runway 30L departures during north flow operationsSource: Metropolitan Airports CommissionRunway 30L departures during north flow operations.

Runway 30R departures during north flow operationsSource: Metropolitan Airports CommissionRunway 30R departures during north flow operations.

‘Wait a minute’

“When the community spoke out, the board listened and said ‘wait a minute,’” says MAC spokesman Patrick Hogan.

The FAA decided to delay the plan until July 2014 for arriving flights and until September 2014 for departures. It’s still possible, Hogan says, that the FAA could decide that it “can’t do a partial implementation.”

That’s what worries people who live in the areas that would be subjected to big increases in the number of daily flights overhead.

For example, applying the new routes to departures from Runway 30L would increase the number of flights northwest of the airport across Lake Calhoun toward Golden Valley; south of Lake Harriet across northern sections of Edina toward Hopkins; and west along the Crosstown through Edina before looping to the southwest.

The City of Edina has hired a Denver law firm with expertise in airport noise issues to represent its interests, says City Council member Joni Bennett.

“We wanted to make sure we understood our rights,” she says. “We understand that we share in the benefit of having a close-in airport. We also believe the burden should be shared.”

In a Star Tribune opinion column published in March, Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said the plan “could create a nonstop superhighway jammed with airplanes” over parts of Edina and Minneapolis.

An airplane approaching the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport over Linden HillsMinnPost photo by Judy KeenAn airplane approaching the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport over Linden Hills.

Before the MAC vote last November, area residents quickly mobilized to collect 4,200 signatures last year on a petition asking that the proposal be blocked and in January formed the MSP FairSkies Coalition.

The Coalition has done its own research on the new navigation system and its impact and is sharing information and strategies with other communities across the nation that are waging similar battles against airport noise.

Steve Kittleson, a Coalition organizer who lives in Minneapolis’ Fulton neighborhood, says the process has been frustrating.

“We’re looking for trust and transparency” from the FAA “and we’ve seen very little,” he says. “I think it’s an uphill battle, but we’re excited about the level of awareness we’ve been able to generate.”

FAA spokesmen were unavailable to respond because of the federal government shutdown.

Simplest solution

Kevin Terrell, another Coalition leader and a board member of the Lynnhurst Neighborhood Association, says the proposal would mean an increase in the number of flights over his home from 25 to 135 a day.

“The simplest solution,” he says, “would be to do what we’ve said all along: Don’t implement” the change on the two north runways “and everybody’s happy.”

The Coalition has been leading the fight on a second front: A proposed change in FAA regulations that would allow it to implement the new system without environmental review if certain noise and efficiency criteria are met.

Almost 600 public comments were submitted; the deadline was Sept. 30. Objections were submitted by community and citizens groups in New Jersey, New York and California.

Among the many comments submitted by Minnesotans was one from Marguerite Collins, a Minneapolis resident, who wrote that the new navigation routes would “smother the quality of life” and “property values would plummet.”

Steve Kittleson, left, and Kevin Terrell of the MSP FairSkies Coalition.MinnPost photo by Judy KeenSteve Kittleson, left, and Kevin Terrell of the MSP FairSkies Coalition.

Liz Kinney, another Minneapolis resident, wrote that the result would be “a terribly negative effect on all the residents, school children and businesses in the affected areas.”

In a letter Monday to FAA administrator Michael Huerta, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a Democrat representing the Fifth District, said the proposed regulation could allow “substantial changes to noise impacts with no appropriate environmental review.” That concern, he wrote, “has resulted in an incredible amount of comments by my constituents.”

Ellison said implementation of the new navigation system without “a thorough view of their effects ignores the concerns that municipalities and constituents that I represent have expressed.”

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Bennett says environmental risks should be measured before the FAA makes its final decision. “The air quality issue should be assessed, health impacts should be assessed,” she says.

The MSP FairSkies Coalition also is challenging the FAA’s noise standards. The agency says levels below 65 decibels are acceptable. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends 55-decibel limits near homes, schools and hospitals.

Terrell says Congress should require the FAA to limit flight noise to 55 decibels and calls the 65-decibel benchmark “completely capricious.”

Legislation introduced in April in the Minnesota House by Democratic Rep. Frank Hornstein would require the MAC to conduct an environmental impact statement for airport that would have to be completed and approved before the FAA could move ahead with its plans.

Opponents say they won’t quit until the proposal is withdrawn. “What this is about,” Kittleson says, “is they’re changing the rules on us.”

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/04/2013 - 10:59 am.

    Airplanes make noise

    There is surely at least some validity to the arguments of opponents of the FAA plan. If I were a resident of the area, an increase from 25 flights to 135 would certainly be more than just a little bit noticeable.

    As for “transparency,” big organizations typically don’t like it, and I use the term “big organizations” purposely, since it’s been my experience that large corporations are no more forthcoming about the details of their plans, or the public cost/benefit consequences, than is the government.

    In short, I agree with Steve Kittleson’s statement that what they’re trying to do represents “…an uphill battle.” It also seems likely, based on my own experience, that Ms. Collins’ comment is likely to be correct: property values may well decline if both the number and sound volume of flights increases dramatically over particular neighborhoods.

    But perhaps that’s as it should be.

    Having lived near the end of a runway in St. Louis for half a century, let me first express a very strong preference for the radial-piston-engined airliner of those days long ago. Compared to the harsh and abstract noise of a modern jet airliner engine, a big Wright or Pratt & Whitney radial is practically musical.

    Beyond that, however, much (not all, but a significant portion) of the objection of the airport’s neighbors seems very much a case of aircraft-oriented NIMBY-ism.

    ‘Twould appear that the airport predates most, if not all, current homeowners for one thing. If airplane noise is a significant quality-of-life issue for someone, purchase of a home in a known flight pattern from the main runway(s) at the local international airport seems… um… counterproductive. There are other areas of the city with suitable housing and few, if any, airplane noise issues.

    So, a relevant question seems to be: Was the airport in operation when you bought your house?

    Another relevant question has to do with flight direction. Unless they’re coming over your garage at 50 feet, incoming flights generate far less noise than outgoing flights. It’s the difference between an engine at very low power settings versus one at full throttle. I had Air National Guard F-15s taking off over my house on a regular basis at 500 feet on full afterburner. Messrs. Kittleson and Terrell have no idea…

    A third question has to do with aircraft safety. Noise suppression typically diminishes the power of just about any internal combustion engine. I’m not an aeronautical engineer, so I don’t know at what point noise suppression begins to encroach upon engine power to the point where takeoff safety begins to be compromised, but there *is* such a point. The 65-decibel sound level may, indeed, be arbitrary, but it may also reflect the current state of the art in terms of tradeoffs between power and noise in aircraft engines commonly used in commercial planes.

    The FAA may, indeed, be changing the rules, but that might be a reflection of changes in aircraft and their powerplants, or changes in how airlines operate the aircraft they have at their disposal. Should everyone who flies out of MSP pay an extra 5% so the neighborhoods currently complaining have fewer noise issues? Maybe so, but it’s not a question that was raised in the article or by the people being quoted. If the tradeoff to increased noise suppression or more diffuse takeoff patterns is increased risk of engine or aircraft failure on takeoff, I’ll take noise every time over the flaming wreckage of a crashed 737 in my front yard.

    And, melodramatic scene aside, the neighbors ought to remember that it’s *never* going to be noise-free at the end of an airport runway as long as we have a commercial aircraft industry.

    • Submitted by Sean Fahey on 10/04/2013 - 02:22 pm.

      Airport proximity seems less an issue

      Maybe I don’t understand the issue fully, but people that live close to the airport will not have much change here, right? The problem seems to be that flights arriving or departing will now be on much more well defined paths coming into the metro area. For example, I have a few planes come over my house per day, but under this plan I would no longer have any. Instead they would be all consolidated to a path a couple miles away, and people living under those paths will have a giant increase in traffic. And they might not even be anywhere close the airport, just unlucky enough to live under one of these sky lanes.

      I hate noise pollution, so this is great for me, but what about the unlucky family that now has 100 more planes going over everyday? I work out in Minnetonka along what seems like a popular arrival path, and even this far from the airport the planes make a giant amount of noise. I see the advantage of restricting that noise to a few corridors but the residents asked to take on this burden should at least be compensated well enough that they can move away or put in sound-proofing if they want to. Then future home buyers can decide with their eyes and ears open whether living under a flight corridor is acceptable.

  2. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 10/04/2013 - 12:45 pm.

    Airport Noise

    So what is the proposal???? You show the graphs for the existing departure paths, but provide absolutely no information on the FAA’s proposed changes.

  3. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/04/2013 - 09:34 pm.

    complex issue

    Airport safety is a complex issue involving more than just the noise issue. One of the biggest issues is the impending problem of increased airline flights and the looming retirement of experienced airline pilots causing a likely shortage of experienced pilots. One of the many other issues was the decision by NWA and compounded by Delta to have one of the largest fleets of older MD-90 series aircraft which have older and nosier engines. The Delta aircraft maintenance base at MSP does primarily MD-90 maintenance.
    MSP is a relatively safe airport but there are airports where concentrating flight paths would certainly create safer air space.

  4. Submitted by Paul Cantrell on 10/04/2013 - 11:28 pm.

    Good point!

    The article misses Tufte’s Principle #1: “As compared to what?”

    (Judy Keen, run out and read _Beautiful Evidence_ if you haven’t already, at least the “Principles of Analytical Design” chapter.)

  5. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 10/05/2013 - 01:01 pm.

    Overflight Safety and Noise

    There are unfortunate errors of fact in this article. The article reports accurately that there were changes and are plans that increase noise exposure from MSP operations. Indeed, there are many complaints, as there should be. Indeed the federal “metric” needs to be changed.

    Any article about MSP noise and safety is welcome, but the over-simplification of the issues misrepresents the hard work of activists like Kevin and Steve and the difficulty of making the changes needed in airport/airline governance, public health and environmental regulation, and fundamental fairness to Minnesota travelers and near-MSP neighborhoods.

    Let’s list the errors: ‘More noise for better airplane efficiency.’ Corrections: ‘airport’ for ‘airplane,.’ and ‘more operations per hour’ for ‘efficiency.’ The PBN plan was reported as reality. Automated routes at 35 US airports are part of a program that MSP volunteered for, but FAA has not even partly applied to MSP operations because of funding, scheduling, technical, and safety issues. The ‘concentrated’ routes will be noisier, but the noise will affect more, not fewer homes and businesses. The ‘Federal’ standard is NOT 65 db (noise level) but the result of modeling airport operations based on dubious assumptions and forecasts. The industry efforts to forestall noise regulation ought to be opposed by the MAC, but is instead supported.

    The story was about the anti-noise efforts, but trivialized them by not mentioning the wrnings of the National Transportation Safety Board (2013) and the World Health Organization (2010).

    See for more info.

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