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In wake of MSP runway suspension, lawmakers demand further analysis of airport expansion plans

Airport officials said future traffic will still be less than MSP’s 2004 peak, and will not have a major impact on noise. Some legislators aren’t so sure about that. 

Delta airplane landing at MSP
Sen. Scott Dibble: “Before we get locked down on a big expansion plan at the airport … what are the implications?”

Seizing on the suspended use of a critical runway, nine Minnesota legislators are demanding more analysis of plans to expand Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the impact of noise and pollution on nearby neighborhoods.

“Now that the runway cannot be used in the manner anticipated … communities should be engaged on next steps,” the Minneapolis legislators said in a letter to Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) Chairman Dan Boivin. “The longer term impacts are as yet unknown, but vitally important to the people we represent.”

The letter cited a July order by the Federal Aviation Administration suspending arrivals on runway 35 for safety reasons. The agency acted out of concern that planes aborting landings on the runway could fly into the path of flights departing from nearby runway 30L, one of two parallel runways that handle most of the traffic at the airport.

The FAA order, first reported by MinnPost, reduced landings from 90 to 60 an hour at the airport on days when weather conditions are such that runway 35 would normally be used. In August, the FAA relaxed that ban by allowing some landings on runway 35 when takeoffs aren’t occurring on runway 30L. That resulted in 75 landings an hour. But the agency hasn’t ruled out returning to the stricter prohibition.

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“We are still evaluating the new procedure,” said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory.

The runway, roughly parallel to County Hwy. 77, handles flights arriving from the south of the airport over Burnsville, Apple Valley and Bloomington.

The 8,000-foot runway was conceived in the 1990s as a way to accommodate air traffic at MSP instead of replacing the airport with a larger one in Dakota County. Costing about $700 million, it was one of the state’s priciest public works projects when it opened in 2005, roughly as expensive as the Hiawatha light rail line. It’s considered in excellent condition.

The prospect that runway 35 will continue taking fewer landings than anticipated prompted the legislators to urge greater scrutiny of airport plans to spend about $2 billion to improve terminals and other facilities it says will be needed to handle a 24 percent increase in flights by 2035, from 412,000 last year.

‘Let’s slow this baby down’

“It would be imprudent to plan capital investments and a significant expansion of the airport based on incorrect assumptions,” said the letter, sent Aug. 31, which was signed by Sen. Scott Dibble, chairman of the Senate Transportation and Public Safety Committee, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, Sen. Jeff Hayden, Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, and Reps. Frank Hornstein, Karen Clark, Susan Allen, Jean Wagenius and Jim Davnie.

“Let’s slow this baby down,” Dibble said in an interview Monday. “Before we get locked down on a big expansion plan at the airport … what are the implications?”

Boivin said Monday that the MAC hasn’t formally responded to the legislators but is hoping to set up meetings with some of them.

Boivin said he was generally aware that the FAA was looking at new procedures for airports with runways like 35 that sometimes route planes in the path of flights using other runways, “though I had no idea when they would address the issue and in what manner.”

“Other than the FAA, I do not believe anyone knew how and when they would act,” he said.

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Airport spokesman Patrick Hogan defended the MSP plans for more flights, saying future traffic will still be less than what it was when traffic was at its peak a decade ago, before the economic downturn.

“MSP has adequate airfield capacity for the forecasted number of aircraft operations through 2035,” Hogan said. “There were more than 540,000 aircraft operations at MSP in 2004, when MSP had only three runways, and we forecast only 511,000 operations in 2035, with four runways to handle the traffic.”

He said the FAA’s current limits on runway 35 landings will reduce operations less than 2 percent of the year.

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 new procedures will not significantly reduce capacity … nor will the new procedures have a major impact on aircraft noise,” he said.

The legislators are not so sure about that. They noted that the FAA’s statement suspending use of runway 35 signaled a potential shift in traffic patterns harmful to parts of south Minneapolis. “The July 31 statement says the FAA ‘may, at times restrict departures to only runway 30R’ over Minneapolis,” the lawmakers wrote. “This creates significant concern about the potential to concentrate noise over some Minneapolis residents.”

They also cited the problem with runway 35 to renew calls for a more elaborate environmental review of the increased traffic expected at the airport. Dibble and some other DFL legislators have pressed for an environmental impact statement on the plans instead of the environmental assessment proposed by airport officials.

“A thorough environmental review provides the opportunity to explain how air pollution, including those pollutants causing climate change, will be reduced while air traffic is increasing,” the letter said.

Hogan said the lesser review was adequate for the expansion planned.

Approved and halted

The FAA approved construction of runway 35 in 1998 on the condition that it would not be used for landings and takeoffs over Minneapolis except as a last resort. Runway 35 took up some traffic from runways 30L-12R, which route traffic over Minneapolis, when they were under construction in 2007.

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Fitting the new runway into MSP’s cramped airfield, hemmed in by freeways and the Minnesota River, required it to be angled toward runway 30L traffic, but the federal government didn’t initially recognize a potential safety hazard.

“What on earth were they thinking at the time?” asked Dibble in the interview.

That thinking began to change in 2013, when the National Traffic Safety Board called on the FAA to alter flight patterns at airports with such “converging runways” to reduce risk of collisions when a plane aborts a landing and goes around for another try. The NTSB cited instances of “flight crews having to execute evasive maneuvers at low altitude to avoid collisions.” It did not identify any instances at MSP.

In January 2014, the FAA  issued new regulations dealing with converging runways at MSP and 16 other major U.S. airports.

“These intersecting paths pose potential risks if a landing aircraft discontinues its approach and must go around, crossing the departure flight path for the other runway,” the FAA said in its order this July. “This action could bring the airplane too close to an aircraft departing from the other runway, risking a mid-air collision.”

The agency noted in July that it had approved specific new plans for all airports but MSP — the only airport where the agency suspended landings on such a runway.