Business leaders at Mesa's Falcon Field Airport are rallying around Sabena Airline Training Center, the largest pilot school in the U.S., accusing the city of gunning for the school because of noise complaints from the community.
City officials say that's not the case, though.
The City Council had originally planned to discuss a "proposed resolution to provide the city manager authority to adopt rules and regulations related to the safe and efficient operation of Falcon Field Airport." But that item was abruptly removed from the agenda this week.
Business owners said that the resolution could have potentially translated to the curbing of flight operations at Sabena in response to the rising noise complaints.
City officials said the resolution was postponed because civic leaders needed more time to clarify points in the proposal before moving forward with it.
Business leaders say they will stand firmly behind Sabena, which brings millions of dollars to Mesa in the form of fuel sales, housing for hundreds of student pilots and sales taxes.
"All the big business owners were just shocked that Mesa was proposing any sort of resolution for the airport," said Alan House, a developer who owns two businesses on Falcon Field.
House said the resolution aimed at giving City Manager Chris Brady sweeping powers to approve or disapprove tenants at Falcon Field.
House and dozens of other business owners descended on a City Council meeting Thursday, and council members removed the resolution from Monday's agenda.
"The council said they pulled it off and that they are going to take a look at it again at a later date," House said.
While it was cause for celebration for businesses weary of the proposal, House said he is still keeping an eye on the city. "We're only just beginning to circle the wagons," he said.
Councilwoman Dina Higgins, who represents District 5 which encompasses Falcon Field, stressed that the resolution the city had proposed for Monday's consent agenda was no reason for business owners to get up in arms.
"It was just to formalize authority the city manager already has," she said, citing that Brady is essentially airport director Corinne Nystrom's boss. "It had nothing to do with neighborhood noise complaints, it was just in an effort to more formally explain the city manager's powers over the airport."
However, Higgins did acknowledge that noise complaints were a big problem.
Falcon Field officials said the airport actually reported a drop in noise complaints between 2007 - when Sabena opened at the airport - compared to a year later.
In 2007, there were 70 noise complaints out of 314,129 flight operations, compared to 64 noise complaints out of 320,606 flight operations in 2008, according to airport spokeswoman Melissa Randazzo. Totals for the first four months of 2009 were not available.
Higgins said what was at issue for many residents was the establishment of the flight school in 2007 and increased frequency of flights.
"Many of the people complaining about the noise have lived in the same house for 20 years or more," she said. "They have never complained until the large amount of training that has started."
Higgins pointed to 20-year resident and retired pilot David Wayne as one of many members of the community who have expressed frustration over what they said was a spike in noise.
With some days seeing as many as 800 flight operations, according to FAA reports, Wayne said that he has been actively involved with pushing for changes to curtail the flight training, if even for a little peace of mind, or quiet over his head.
"The biggest problem is with Sabena out at the airport and the touch-and-go flight training," Wayne said, citing when students fly and takeoff and land several times in one training session.
Wayne, who sits on the Falcon Field Ad Hoc Task Force, a committee formed by the mayor, said he and a growing number of residents are committed to quelling the high-frequency headache over their heads.
But Higgins stressed that the stalled plans of the city had nothing to do with the growing noise issue. "This move had nothing to do with the flight school," she said.
Business owner Paul Lessaongang said he would rather be safe than sorry in assuming that sweeping changes weren't aimed at one of the most contentious points at the airport: noise from flight training.
Lessaongang, who owns Falcon Executive Aviation, and has been an airport tenant for 35 years, said a lot was at stake for many companies that have begun to thrive since the arrival of the flight school.
"The building the school is housed in sat vacant for three to five years before Sabena came," he said.
Of about 900 tenants at the airport, Lessaongang said, the economic impact of Sabena includes fuel purchases for training flights, as well as leasing parking for the planes.
"There's a whole apartment complex right across the street that the school basically rents out," he said.
Nystrom acknowledged the economic benefit Sabena brings, citing a 2.25 percent sales tax for leasing hangars and space at Falcon Field paid to Mesa, and a tax of 10 cents per gallon on aviation fuel paid to the airport. She said in total, the company contributes $9.5 million to the local economy.
Nystrom said airport officials meet with the FAA on a monthly basis to determine ways to solve the sound issue.
"We talk about what can we do to continue to reduce the amount of noise," she said. "We have to be good neighbors."
Nystrom said the airport recently increased the traffic pattern altitude in accordance with FAA from 806 feet above ground level to 1,006 for smaller planes, and from 1,306 feet to 1,506 for larger, turbine-powered aircraft.
The change was in an effort to put a greater distance between the homes and the students in the air, she said.
House said those concessions were understandable, and wouldn't jeopardize business, but that it's a thin line between concessions and curtailing a company's ability to succeed.
"Any airport given to a city by FAA has to allow free enterprise," or else possibly lose much-needed FAA funds, he said. "You can't limit commerce at an FAA airport."