If you feel like you’ve been hearing more commercial planes flying over your neighborhood since late 2014, it isn’t your imagination.
But now, Congress and the Obama administration have finally done something about it.
With last month’s approval of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration is required to help cities that can show they have been harmed by changes in flight paths to and from nearby airports.
The law’s flight-path provision could mean a lot to Tempe residents, who have put up with an increasing number of overhead flights from Sky Harbor Airport.
The law requires that airports and communities have the opportunity to engage with the FAA before any future flight path changes are made. And it applies retroactively to the big change that occurred in September 2014.
Back then, the FAA began implementing NextGen, which altered flight paths in an effort to streamline arrivals and departures at the airport.
Neighborhoods bombarded by the noise said the change was made with little public notice or input.
That includes Tempe Mayor Mark Mitchell, who complained in 2015 to FAA environmental specialist Marina Landis. He wrote:
“You may not be aware but Tempe’s neighborhoods, both adjacent to the airport in north Tempe and along flight paths in south Tempe, have been significantly impacted by both historic and recent flight path changes.
“The process, thus far, has been far from transparent and focused predominantly on environmental and economic factors,” he continued. “While these are certainly important elements, a well-rounded and sustainable solution is best developed when social factors and the effect on the public is equally weighted.
“I am disappointed that the public was not involved in implementation of the NextGen program in the Phoenix Metroplex from the beginning and, moving forward, urge you to listen to the public comments as part of your overall strategy.”
The FAA did nothing.
The change was supposed to enhance departures and arrivals, using communication between satellites and on-board airplane equipment to “navigate with greater precision and accuracy.”
After months of discussions and stalled negotiations regarding the noise complaints, the city of Phoenix sued the FAA in June 2015.
Sky Harbor was not the only airport to see noise complaints rise after the start of NextGen: Similar lawsuits have been filed in Boston, New York and throughout California.
McCain said the new law will make “requires the FAA to mitigate the negative effects of flight path changes that have already been implemented, while providing impacted communities and airports a seat at the table before any future changes are made.”
His colleague Sen. Jeff Flake said the measure will “address complaints of Arizonans who have been negatively impacted by the flight path changes at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
“The provisions we were able to add establish a process to address those hardships and ensure the FAA will better consult with affected communities on future flight changes.”
Phoenix officials aren’t ready to celebrate.
They expect to continue their two-year federal suit aimed at forcing the FAA to change the flight paths.
Some people have measured over-flight noise between 69 and 80 decibels, a range that scientists consider just shy of the potential to cause hearing loss.
Sky Harbor spokeswoman Heather Lissner said the city’s aviation department has been “actively involved” in working to “address flight path concerns” voiced by the community.
Neighbors of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport filed 24,247 complaints about noise at the facility in 2015, one of the highest rates among airports studied in a recent George Mason University report.
The report by the university’s Mercatus Center looked at airports like Sky Harbor and others where the FAA implemented NextGen.
Sky Harbor trailed only San Francisco International Airport, which logged an astronomical 890,376 complaints. But Sky Harbor was well ahead of the next airports in line: Los Angeles International with 8,862 and Washington-Reagan National Airport with 8,760.
The Mercatus Center report said the Sky Harbor complaints were submitted by 1,338 households in 2015, with just 13 addresses accounting for 3,814 of the complaints.
The new law wants an advisory committee to review the way the agency handles “consultation, or a lack of consultation,” with neighbors and local officials when implementing new rules at an airport.
The committee would have to report back to Congress within a year with recommendations for improving the procedures.
An FAA spokesman said the agency is committed to “transparency, inclusivity and responsiveness,” but it also wants Sky Harbor to set up its own process for receiving complaints in person from nearby residents.
“We have encouraged the Phoenix airport to establish a noise roundtable to ensure that community representatives, the FAA, the airport and the airline industry are all part of the discussion about addressing noise concerns,” the FAA said.
– Cronkite News contributed to this report.