New flight-path plan worries South Seattle residents
South Seattle residents are struggling to get answers from the Federal Aviation Administration about how much air traffic and noise could increase over their homes if new flight-arrival paths are approved at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
By Alexa Vaughn Seattle Times staff reporter
JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
An airliner heads toward Sea-Tac Airport recently. The FAA says its plan will increase noise no more than a tiny amount, but the agency has drawn criticism from residents over its approach.
The Federal Aviation Administration says it doesn’t have anything to hide about its proposed “Greener Skies Over Seattle” program for flights approaching the airport — but that’s not how it looks to a growing number of South Seattle residents living below some of its more concentrated flight paths.
Mayor Mike McGinn has now backed up a request from a North Beacon Hill group and other Seattle residents asking that the FAA reopen the comment period on the proposed fuel-saving program and host a public meeting about it in South Seattle.
They want the technical jargon in the program’s draft environmental report translated not just into laymen’s terms, but also into the diverse languages spoken in South Seattle so that residents can better understand how much more air traffic and noise the program might bring to their neighborhoods.
“We just want a lot more clarity,” said North Beacon Hill resident Ticiang Diangson. “We’re not even really sure what the impacts on us will be right now.”
Designed to improve flight safety, Greener Skies uses satellite-guided technology to minimize potential miscommunication between air traffic controllers and pilots. It also shifts the flight paths of planes equipped with the new technology, concentrating their descents along more consistent and direct routes over smaller areas, saving fuel and reducing carbon emissions.
The new approach method was tested this summer at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
If the FAA approves Greener Skies after the environmental-impact report is finalized, the agency could begin phasing it in as soon as next year, starting with two of Sea-Tac’s busiest carriers, Alaska Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
For most communities, the overall impacts of the proposed approach routes would be favorable, according to the FAA. More arriving flights would cut over Elliott Bay, for example, instead of over thousands of North Seattle homes.
The FAA also maintains that the Greener Skies descent method reduces the noise of individual jets coming in for a landing. That’s because, instead of descending in a stair-step pattern as they now do, the jets descend smoothly, allowing them to power down into what’s called flight idle mode, which uses less fuel and is quieter.
Though Greener Skies maps give a general idea of what communities lie below the proposed routes, the agency hasn’t said specifically which neighborhoods those would be.
“It is unclear whether or not these changes might direct flights disproportionately over a specific community, who could then experience greater noise impacts as a result,” said McGinn in a letter to the FAA requesting additional time for the public to comment.
The FAA ultimately hopes to see Greener Skies’ technology used by other airlines and major airports not just in the U.S. but around the world.
Whatever the program’s overall benefits may be, North Beacon Hill residents like Diangson say they are no excuse for the FAA’s failure to candidly explain the impact on South Seattle.
Robert Bismuth, a Magnolia resident who tangled with the FAA in 2010 over its plan to change flight paths over his neighborhood, agrees.
“What they’re doing is actually great,” Bismuth said of Greener Skies. “But the way they’re going about presenting it to the public is a disaster.”
Before the official public- comment period for Greener Skies ended on Sept. 14, the FAA presented a draft of an environmental-impact report online and at two public meetings — one in Federal Way and the other one in Ballard. At both meetings, FAA officials referred people seeking clarifications in the report and meeting presentation to a court reporter who recorded their questions.
And while people could talk individually with experts from the FAA and the Port of Seattle, the FAA shut down any attempts to generate a public discussion around their questions.
Those at the Ballard meeting wanted to know, for example, why — if the program’s technology is supposed to make landings quieter — the draft environmental-impact study showed an increase in noise over parts of South Seattle, the Central District, Capitol Hill and West Seattle. Was it because flight paths would be more concentrated?
FAA officials said they would respond to such questions after the public-comment period, in the assessment’s final draft.
“They’re being so evasive, it makes them suspect,” said Beacon Hill resident Erik Stanford.
But David Suomi, regional FAA administrator based in Renton, said the agency has already communicated to the public what he said are the most important points about Greener Skies: that there would be no noticeable environmental impact and, as stated at both public meetings, that the biggest increase in noise in any area would be just 0.9 decibels. Suomi said that difference is so small the FAA didn’t even need to report it, but did to be transparent.
Suomi said he thinks South Seattle residents are blaming the Greener Skies program for air traffic and noise-pollution problems that already exist and are increasing with or without the program’s approval. The Greener Skies environmental-impact report says air traffic around Sea-Tac airport is expected to increase more than 30 percent by 2023.
Another FAA official working on Greener Skies said South Seattle residents were inaccurately blaming reports of increased jet noise this summer on the program’s six-week flight trial. He said the real source of the noise increase came from increased departures over their homes.
In good summer weather, the official said, more commercial planes depart from Sea-Tac via routes over South Seattle. They also end up flying lower at first because it takes longer for planes to gain altitude in warm air.
“We understand why they’re upset, but it has nothing to do with Greener Skies,” Suomi said.
The FAA has scheduled a public meeting for Oct. 23 in South Seattle, but only to address air traffic and noise in general, Suomi said. Extending the public-comment period for Greener Skies and hosting a meeting specifically about its impact on that part of town is not going to happen, he said.
“There’s always another neighborhood that’s upset we didn’t hold a meeting near them,” Suomi said. “But we can’t hold them in every neighborhood that wants one.”
That’s not acceptable to those still wanting an extension of the program’s public-comment period.
“People were not educated enough to review the (environmental assessment), let alone comment on it,” said Bismuth, the Magnolia resident.
The FAA pulled the same thing in 2010, he said, scheduling public-comment meetings in Everett, Burien and Auburn when it was trying to lower the altitude at which commercial planes could fly over Magnolia, Queen Anne and Ballard.
Opposition from neighborhoods, politicians and pilots ultimately persuaded the FAA not to approve the changes.
But before that happened, Bismuth said, he researched the proposed changes himself and set up his own neighborhood meeting to spread word about the potential impacts. FAA officials agreed to attend the meeting but not present or answer questions at it, he said.
“I spent an hour giving a presentation to people explaining what all the terms in the report meant … ,” said Bismuth. “That’s what the FAA should have been doing for them, not me.”
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