Night flights going up at MSP

After a post-9/11 dip, SW flights are increasing and noise levels are, too

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Despite a post-9/11 slump in air travel, noise and night flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul airport (MSP) are matching --

or in some cases topping -- pre-9/11 levels.

Night flights above Minneapolis were up 20 percent this July compared to July 2001 -- an increase of 134 flights, or roughly four more a night between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Noise monitors in three Southwest locations -- 41st and Xerxes, 43rd and Fremont and 58th and Irving -- reported nearly identical noise levels this July compared to July 2001, varying by less than one half of one percent, according to data from the Metropolitan Airport Commission.

Is it a momentary upward blip or the start of a long-term resurgence in the industry -- and what does it mean for Southwest residents contending with plane noise?

If plane traffic here is on an upward swing, some city officials worry about the implications for the airport's home sound insulation program. MAC could decide to base the map that determines who qualifies for sound insulation on the temporarily low numbers in late 2001 and early 2002.

City Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) said using lower numbers would skew the noise map, reducing the number of eligible homes.

Noise complaints back up

Air traffic had dropped significantly in the past year, due to the events of Sept. 11 and the economic downturn. In February, for instance, Minneapolis had 70 percent fewer night flights than it did in February 2001.

Minneapolis has had more overflights this summer, due in part to increased plane traffic and in part to wind conditions. While total night flights are still lower than 2001, the weather required air traffic controllers to direct more planes than usual to fly over the city, MAC staff said.

Total flights at MSP in July and August passed last year's July and August flights by 2 percent; the drop has come from smaller recreational and commuter flights, MAC data shows. For the first eight months of the year, commercial jet traffic already has passed 2001 levels.

(January-August 2001 flights were undercounted approximately 5 percent because of missing MAC radar data.)

MAC technical reports show airlines are using quieter planes this year, but they also show noise complaints are back up. In January 2002, MAC logged 574 noise complaints, a 20 percent reduction compared to the previous January. In July 2002, MAC received 1,975 complaints, a 40 percent increase over the previous July.

Noise complaints were up 2 percent in August compared to a year ago.

A faster bounceback

One national expert said air traffic at MSP should recover faster than other airports, like Chicago/O'Hare, due to Northwest Airlines' strength.

The Boyd Group, a Colorado-based consulting firm that tracks information from 130 airports, said the national outlook is grim. "The national traffic plunge will be deep and will not return to year 2000 levels until at least 2005-06, best case," it wrote on its website,

However, CEO Mike Boyd said MSP should start to see very slow growth next year, and reach peak 2000 levels by 2004. Chicago/O'Hare, on the other hand, will take most of the decade to recover.

"MSP should start to rebound only because of what we think the corporate strategy of Northwest is going to be," Boyd said. "You are dealing with an airline that has a very strong management and a very strong direction of where it wants to go -- and it has more or less done the right thing over the past five years," he said.

"At Memphis, they have added a fourth set of connecting flights back, which they took out after 9/11. At Detroit they have a new terminal. At Minneapolis, they have significant new facilities."

At O'Hare, however, traffic will decline because the two major carriers, United and American, have significantly slashed their capacity, Boyd said. It means Chicago will get less use as a hub, a layover for connecting flights.

He cautions the forecasts "could change in a New York heartbeat."

Chad Leqve, manager of MAC's aviation noise program, said it is too early to tell if the industry has made a turnaround.

"It is encouraging from the aviation industry perspective," he said of MAC flight data. "It is a little early in the ballgame to start drawing real big conclusions."

Marybeth Schubert, manager of Northwest's media relations, said the airline is still under its traditional peak flying numbers, but declined to discuss its projections, saying it was proprietary information.

"In post 9/11, we immediately pulled down our night flying," she said. "We saw a modest increase in traffic the first part of the year, which made us comfortable to add some traditional (night) flights back over the summer."

Changes in airplanes, changes in noise

The types of planes using MSP are changing, and that will affect noise levels.

MAC has tried to encourage commuter and recreational flights to use smaller regional airports, like Flying Cloud, Crystal and St. Paul's Holman Field, instead of MSP, Leqve said.

MAC data for July said daily commuter flights dropped by 21 percent and recreational flights dropped by 33 percent at MSP.

"We are trying to foster a greater use of the reliever airport system," Leqve said. "MSP is intended for air carrier service in the region."

Carrier planes typically make more noise than smaller commuter or recreational planes -- but the carrier airlines are flying quieter planes this year. In July, for instance, more than 67 percent of the commercial jet flights were manufactured Stage III aircraft, the quietest jets, compared to 56 percent in July 2001, according to a MAC technical report.

Benson said he wonders whether the change to quieter planes is permanent, or whether carriers will bring louder jets back into service when the economy recovers and the demand for flights increases.

According to data from the three MAC noise towers in Southwest, the first half of 2002 has been quieter than 2001 -- by a little.

The towers -- located at Anthony Middle School at 58th and Irving, 41st and Xerxes and 43rd and Fremont -- measured at most a 3 percent noise reduction in some months.

Will today's traffic determine tomorrow's insulation?

Dan Boivin, Mayor R.T. Rybak's MAC appointee, had not seen the most recent flight data, he said. He has focused on maintaining support for the airport's sound-insulation program. "There will be efforts in the future to cut back on that," he said.

The big political battle looming is how the MAC redraws its "Noise Exposure Map" that determines who qualifies for home sound-insulation upgrades.

MAC had submitted a new map to the Federal Aviation Administration, but withdrew it this year at the urging of Northwest Airlines.

If MAC used 2000 data for its base year -- a higher traffic year -- more homes will qualify. Using 2002 data, fewer homes would qualify.

The noise map debate should resurface in early 2003, Benson said.