FAA suspends arrivals on one MSP runway; decision expected to affect air traffic and noise

A Delta Air Lines flight taking off from MSP International Airport
A Delta Air Lines flight taking off from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

In a major decision aimed at reducing the risk of airline crashes, the Federal Aviation Administration has suspended arrivals on one runway at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The order closes runway 35 — which runs roughly parallel to County Hwy. 77 —  to planes arriving from the south when flights are taking off from another runway, 30L, which approaches the northern end of runway 35 from the southeast. The reason: Arriving flights aborting a landing on runway 35 could fly north into the path of a plane departing from 30L.

“This ‘intersection’ in the sky poses potential risks if a landing aircraft must discontinue its approach and go around,” FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory said in a statement. “This action could bring the airplane too close to an aircraft departing from the other runway, risking a mid-air collision.”

Runway 35 handles a minority of flights at Minneapolis-St. Paul, but the suspension could at times reduce the maximum number of planes that can land at the airport from 90 an hour to 60 or 64 an hour.

And though the suspension could provide some relief from airport noise for residents of southern suburbs of Bloomington, Burnsville, Apple Valley and Eagan, the move also means increased landings on runways that affect other communities around the airport. Cities southeast of the airport such as Mendota Heights could see an increase in flight traffic that otherwise would fly over more southern suburbs. 

“While there will be no changes to the routes aircraft fly when arriving, there will be additional arrivals on Runway 30L and 30R,” Cory said. “This increase is a result of the restriction of arrivals on Runway 35.”

“The FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association are evaluating options to increase arrival and departure rates while adhering to the new safety measures,” she added.

To speed up arrivals, the FAA may at times restrict departures to only 30R, and use 30L and 35 exclusively for arrivals.

In a statement made last week disclosing the July 24 FAA decision, MSP officials noted the likely reduction in flights over southern suburbs — but not the potential increase in arrivals on other runways. 

“At this time we do not know how the FAA plans to operate the airspace, long term, with this requirement in place, so I cannot speculate to its impact on runway use,” said Melissa Scovronski, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission. 

But the FAA said it is looking into the possibility that the change will alter aircraft noise patterns around the airport.

The FAA also said the reduction in flight arrival rates could slow airport traffic between 5:45 p.m. and 6:45 p.m. on weekdays. “The arrival demand during this timeframe exceeds the arrival rate that can be safely handled with the [suspension] … so delays may occur. To maintain safety, the FAA moderates the number of arrivals entering the airspace, which results in delays.”

The FAA said no single incident prompted the suspension of arrivals on runway 35, but that the change was part of a nationwide effort to reduce the risk stemming from converging runways. The FAA said it hasn’t suspended a runway at any other airport for a similar reason. 

MSP has had more air-traffic-control errors than other large U.S. airports in recent years, and some aviation experts have speculated that MSP’s runway layout may add a degree of complexity to controlling takeoffs and landings that contribute to air-traffic problems.

Minneapolis-St. Paul has at times ranked 13th in plane traffic but seen more problems than nine of the 12 busier U.S. airports.

Runway map of MSP
Federal Aviation Administration
Arriving flights aborting a landing on runway 35 could fly north into the path of a plane departing from 30L.

The airport tower recorded 34 episodes of planes flying too close together in 2012, according to FAA data. More than a third of them were considered significant enough to trigger a special risk analysis by the agency.

To compare: The towers at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare, the two busiest airports in the nation, had only 18 and seven incidents, respectively. The towers at the next busiest airports, Dallas-Fort Worth and Denver, had nine and three incidents.

While the FAA hasn’t offered a specific reason for the higher numbers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul tower, agency spokeswoman Laura Brown has noted that each airport “has a unique set of operational procedures and runway configurations … .”

Pat Doyle is a longtime Twin Cities journalist.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Bob Collins on 08/10/2015 - 11:59 am.

    Interesting. I would think they’d be able to stagger the departure on 30L with the arriving jet on 35, though I suppose it would depend on when the 35 pilot aborted in the approach.

    Still, this seems like a very hasty overreaction.

  2. Submitted by John Heintz on 08/10/2015 - 02:03 pm.

    30R

    Typical. This evidently means we’re protecting south of the river suburbs from lower decibel landing noise (unintentional or not), at the cost of more higher decibel takeoffs over South Minneapolis. Thanks, FAA.

  3. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/10/2015 - 02:22 pm.

    North/South Covenant

    What also needs reinforcement in this review is the fact that flights are prohibited from takeoff to or landing from the North.

    When this runway was proposed, and all the regulatory steps were in process, the northern suburbs joined forces to prohibit use of the runway to/from the North, for obvious reasons:

    First, of course, was the clear assumption that the airport commission would continue to spread the noise around, as it has for decades, thereby using the North/South when other suburbs complained enough. That would be now.

    Second, and truly critical, is the simple fact that any takeoff or landing crashes would very likely be in the heart of the Metro, Downtown in particular. That’s just not acceptable, no matter the noise issues for others. When caught sending takeoffs to the North several years ago, the Tower crew acknowledged the restriction, telling me that sometimes they needed to do so in order to avoid weather to the West. They ceased. (For those who are new to MSP, please know that most of our weather is to the West, NW or SW.)

    So, a covenant against such use was placed in the paperwork. Know this and remember it. Any attempt to violate that covenant will be subject to significant legal and political penalties. North is a no fly zone.

    • Submitted by Jason Swenson on 08/10/2015 - 04:26 pm.

      Prohibited vs. Limited

      One needs to be careful in saying North is a no fly zone. Landings and takeoffs in that direction is not entirely prohibited. The language I can find suggests that the FAA will operate the runway in a manner which limits those flights to the limited conditions of safety, weather conditions, or temporary runway closures due to snow removal, construction, or other activities.

      There are times when its usage in that matter is justified – mostly driven by strong winds in a direction that causes problems for the other runways, namely very strong winds out of the south. As I recall, June of last year had a day with winds blowing over 40 out of the south which resulted in landings on Runway 17 from the North.

  4. Submitted by Jim Spensley on 08/10/2015 - 04:34 pm.

    FAA Procedure changes

    Thanks for asking FAA about the loss-of-separation incidents (34). The FAA statement that a single incident was not the cause of the change implied no incidents at all.

    MinnPOST might have been 30 months earlier reporting on this. SMAAC advised the MAC last October that the NTSB, at SMAAC’s request, had been studying MSP specifically regarding the converging runways problem. That exchange started in September 2013. We sent a news release.

    Who benefits from overscheduling operations per hour at MSP? Local travelers (origin and destination passengers) don’t — they pay for most of the surge capacity though higher fares. Neighborhoods and cities don’t — high runway use rates increase noise and pollution and sound insulation costs are high (but avoided if possible by the MAC) and land use is restricted. Minnesota residents don’t — they suffer from health risks increased by overflights and school perfomance is also an overflight-related problem at least in part.

    Government credibility doesn’t — Letters from FAA and NTSB confirming that technolgy needed to simultaneously increase runway use per hour safely, reduce air pollution by more controlled ascents and descents, and assign more fuel-efficient routes nationally were in development with indefinite completions (no FAA Re-Authirization or 2015-16 budget) were not considered pertinent to the 2016-2022 MSP Capital Inmprovement Plan or Annual Environmental review.

  5. Submitted by Scott Norris on 08/10/2015 - 06:39 pm.

    This means *nothing* for South Minneapolis noise

    There’s nothing in this action that increases or changes in any way the volume (yeah) of traffic taking off to the northwest. All it does is change the landing pattern when winds are from the north or west to concentrate more landing traffic over the Eagan/Mendota Heights industrial corridor, whereas some of that would have come over the Apple Valley/Burnsville/Cedar Avenue corridor.

    When the winds are from the south, all three runways can be used for takeoffs – again, that noise goes to Burnsville-Apple Valley-Eagan-Mendota Heights. Landings in the southerly-wind scenario come over the Minneapolis Lakes, and nothing in this action changes that.

  6. Submitted by Joe Musich on 08/10/2015 - 09:30 pm.

    The airport as it is now laid out ….

    Is the abomination many years ago warned it would be. We can argue about the minutiae of what run way for this or that. Fact of the matter is unless the airport is moved these discussions will never have a conclusion. Where are the quieter aircraft that were suppose to come ? As it now stands the big gainers in the airport remaining where it is now is the construction industry who might I add would have gained even more if the move would have been made years ago. So in the space if this discussion we here the head of MMC gets a salary increase ! Homes are insulated so now nearby and in many cases not so nearby residence can stay in their homes for noise protection ! Oh by the way where is RTRyback’s leadership on airport noise issues now ? Another decision coming out austerity gone awry! If the Old Ford plant can be reclaimed why not the airport ? Move it !

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/11/2015 - 09:55 am.

      Can we outsource it?

      To Wisconsin, perhaps?

      The Airports Commission has built a monster it apparently can no longer properly control. These issues have been known for decades…decades! And here we are, with general safety concerns long known and FAA violations not so known.

      The opportunity to move this beast is long past, as noted by others. The South I35 corridor is now built beyond that possibility. Perhaps the only long-term strategy is to follow the population expansion up the I94 corridor, recognizing the ailing St. Cloud airport as a possible partial remedy. As more corporations locate to the North, that may be a realistic plan. But, that would also require vision and smart planning.

      Any consideration of enhanced use of the Saint Paul Downtown airport (the original commercial field, by the way) was dismissed years ago, before the most recent MSP expansion. Too obvious, I guess. Today it serves best as a flood plain reliever, not an air traffic reliever.

    • Submitted by Jason Swenson on 08/11/2015 - 10:04 am.

      Where are the quieter planes?

      All depends on your timeframe. When the decision to keep the airport where it is was made, Stage II aircraft were still allowed. They have since been eliminated.

      At the time, Northwest flew the 727, the DC-9, and DC-10’s, and Sun Country flew DC-10’s and 727’s, and Champion Air flew 727’s. All of those planes were hush kitted to meet Stage III requirements, but they were still some of the loudest planes out there.

      Since that time, NW, and now Delta have retired all the 727’s, the DC9’s, and DC-10’s. Sun Country retired their DC-10’s and 727’s. Champion Air went out of business and all their 727’s are gone.

      All of those planes replacements are substantially quieter (and more fuel efficient).

  7. Submitted by Michael Kehoe on 08/11/2015 - 07:14 pm.

    Prepping us for Performance Based Navigation (PBN)

    In the article, this caught my eye, “The FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association are evaluating options to increase arrival and departure rates while adhering to the new safety measures,” In 2012 Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) sent the FAA hightailing it out of Dodge when FAA’s presenter was pressed to answer whether they had fully implemented PBN (Performance Based Navigation) at any single airport in the U.S. – he had to say “No” after months of testimony implying that it had. The audience erupted in hoots and howls and Mr. FAA took a speedy exit. (PBN, if applied at MSP, would concentrate departure routes into a pencil thin line that would consolidate all departure noise over a very, very narrow trajectory. The impact underneath these superhighways in the sky would be unbearable.)

    But we all knew that, someday, they would be back. This newly discovered problem looks like an opportunity to present a reason why the time is now to implement this plan (they don’t need any local approval from any governmental authority).

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