Despite NWA threat, will expanded noise-insulation program survive?

Hundreds of Southwest homes affected

Many people felt Northwest Airlines drew a line in the sand when a spokesperson said this summer that the airline wanted an "indefinite postponement" of the $150 million sound-mitigation program for homes near the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Instead, the line might have been drawn in the streets of Southwest, between houses that will get insulation, new windows and doors, and central air, and those that won't.

Asked about Northwest's commitment to noise mitigation, Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC) Executive Director Jeff Hamiel said, "I think Northwest is reneging right now."

In August, Northwest CEO Richard Anderson called for a "moratorium" on the $150 million noise-mitigation program for homes in the 60-64 DNL (Day-Night Levels of sound) zone, declaring that it would be "a major policy shift" to insulate those residences.

In the past, only homes receiving 65 DNL or more received mitigation funds. As part of an agreement not to build a new airport elsewhere, MAC, Northwest and local leaders agreed to mitigate noise in homes between 60 and 64 DNL -- until NWA staked out its new moratorium position.

How firm is the 60-to-64 DNL program?

"Obviously, there has to be a noise insulation program that continues through [the] 60-64 [DNL zone]," said MAC Commissioner Dan Boivin, appointed by Mayor R.T. Rybak to represent Minneapolis on the commission. "That was the deal that was made, and that was the commitment that was made and they signed legal agreements to that effect."

Boivin said one such agreement is the lease Northwest signed in 2000, running through 2005. As part of that lease, Boivin said Northwest agreed to participate in the sound-mitigation program with MAC. Northwest agreed to pay $70 million, with MAC coming up with the program's other $80 million.

However, whether that program will benefit 60-to-64 DNL homes remains, pardon the pun, up in the air.

Airing it out A federal threat to expanding the insulation program appears to have died.

In September, the FAA clarified that regardless of whether federal funds were used, the MAC's program could proceed. U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton requested the FAA opinion after Northwest lobbied U.S. Sen. Trent Lott to insert a clause banning federal funds for paying for noise mitigation below 65 DNL.

Dayton's office released a statement: "We are pleased with the FAA's legal opinion and analysis, which seems to say what we had hoped -- that the Metropolitan Airports Commission will retain their authority to use local funds to pay for noise mitigation for the airport's neighbors [in the 60-64 DNL zone]."

The MAC's General Counsel, Tom Anderson, said the local agreement to continue noise-mitigation beyond the 65 DNL line is clear -- more or less.

Tom Anderson said Northwest, along with all of the other airlines that regularly use MSP, have signed operating agreements with MAC. Northwest leases over 80 percent of the facility.

As part of the lease/operating agreement negotiations, the airlines and MAC agreed to the 2010 Plan, a development strategy for the airport system and its occupants. The plan is broken into components, such as concourse expansion, runway extensions and constructions, reliever airports, and so on. One such component deals with noise mitigation.

"In this noise-mitigation [component], there is specifically included a provision for soundproofing within the 60-64 DNL contour," the MAC's Anderson said.

Clear enough? Not necessarily.

Fogging up the crystal ball That provision for soundproofing in the 60-64 DNL has been agreed upon -- it's the specifics of the provision that are in dispute.

Tom Anderson continued, "This is a single piece of paper covering several hundred million dollars of construction that's called noise-mitigation. There is no specific commitment about what is to be done in the 60-64 DNL contour area.

"That is a totally separate issue and something that I believe our board has the discretion to examine and decide what is the appropriate amount of soundproofing or other treatment that might take place in that area. It does not commit us, if you will, to do anything. It does not commit the airport's commission to do this project; it authorizes the airport's commission to do this project if it determines that it's necessary and desirable to do so."

Said Minneapolis MAC representative Boivin, "At some point in time, there's going to be a discussion, which will then lead to a vote to answer the question, 'What do we do for noise mitigation?' I suspect at that point in time, NWA will come in and say, 'Put it in abeyance. Can't afford it. This is a bad time. We gotta spend more money on security. Stop. We gotta put it on hold, as opposed to completely gutting it' -- that may be their approach."

NWA is saying that -- now.

Though NWA refused to make a spokesperson available for interview, they did release a statement to Southwest Journal, which reads, in part:

"Rather than focusing on additional noise-abatement activities, at this time, these funds should be directed towards the most pressing priorities, including the safety and security of the millions of passengers who use the local airport each year.

"At a time when the airline industry is facing significant losses brought on by a myriad of incidents beyond its control…[continuing sound-mitigation] is in effect choosing additional air conditioning and insulation over thousands of statewide jobs, as well as safety and security priorities."

"Oh, that's the biggest red herring I've ever heard from them," said Boivin. "They're hypocrites. They plan to fight, as best I can tell, on anything that has to do with any money being spent."

Will the Commission buckle?

Although Minneapolis only has one MAC commissioner, others support 60-64 zone mitigation. Said MAC Commissioner Dick Long, who represents St. Paul, "Hopefully, the Commission will hold, if at all possible, all of our feet to the fire to get it done. It might not be done as quickly as we would all like to do it…I'd like to see it get done today."

However, Vicki Grunseth, MAC's chair and a Gov. Tim Pawlenty appointee, said "Any time you have an event like September 11th, you'd better be willing to look at things in that environment, that postdisaster environment. Does that mean you're going to change things? I don't know, but I think it certainly is worthy of a discussion."

According to Boivin, "There are definitely people who are sympathetic to NWA's plight. And we all are to a certain degree. However, a deal's a deal…At some point in time, this may end up in the courts."