How have the new runway and the bankruptcy of Northwest affected airport noise?
The new 8,000-foot runway at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport is open, diverting some of the noisy aircraft that have plagued Southwest homeowners to points south of the city. Some airport observers see irony in the timing of the opening: It fairly neatly coincides with Northwest Airlines' bankruptcy filing. The hometown company asked for the $785 million runway as part of the $3 billion “MSP 2010” airport expansion it completes.
Southwest residents hearing less noise since the north/south runway opened in late October are likely to find the racket relief to be temporary. The runway will eventually carry about 37 percent of the traffic now coming and going from MSP, but because it increases airport capacity by 25 percent - and air traffic is projected to keep growing in coming years - at some point in the future, traffic and noise will creep back up to the loud standards Southwest experienced just a few weeks ago. And then it will get louder.
Adjusting the volume
Right now, the runway is being ramped up to full capacity by the Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic control at the airport. It will be fully operational by January, Metropolitan Airport Commission (MAC) spokesperson Melissa Scovronski said. The runway is currently carrying about 25 percent of departures, or about 300 per day. (It's handling about130 daily arrivals as well.)
She said the major impact of the new runway is heard south of the Mall of America, including Richfield, Eagan and Bloomington. Those cities, along with Minneapolis, have filed suit against the MAC to force the Commission to fully insulate more homes affected by airport noise.
She said Eagan residents have filed the most complaints so far, but that they've also gotten calls from Burnsville, Apple Valley, Farmington, Lakeville, Bloomington and Richfield.
Jim Spensley, president of SMAAC (South Metro Airport Action Council), an antinoise activist group, lives in the Nokomis neighborhood, which is bombarded by hundreds of arrivals and departures from MSP daily.
He said that so far, he's heard no difference in noise at his home despite the diverting of aircraft. Spensley said someday soon, the noise hitting his home could drop dramatically if Northwest's financial troubles worsen.
He said SMAAC envisions two possible outcomes of the Northwest bankruptcy announced in September. In the first scenario, the airline survives bankruptcy and MSP continues to be a hub.
In the second scenario, an airline industry shakedown eliminates the so-called legacy airlines dependent on the hub and spoke system. That reduces use of MSP to 50 percent of the flight operational use in 1995, meaning there will be fewer flights per day, though they'll be carried out by more airlines.
As a noise activist, he prefers the second, quieter possibility. As a taxpayer who, like the rest of us, owns a tiny fraction of the bonds MAC sold to pay for expansion, he prefers the former scenario.
He doesn't particularly care for a future where we “are going to be left paying for an airport that's more than twice as big as we really need.”
Do you hear what I hear?
Kari Berman, a MAC commissioner representing Bloomington, Richfield and Edina, said she doesn't have a crystal ball and can make no predictions on how Northwest's bankruptcy will affect the airport. She said the expansion proposed last year by Northwest and Gov. Tim Pawlenty is on hold but that at some point, the facility will have to grow.
“There will be expansion that will happen, I would imagine, to accommodate the needs of our communities and businesses and travelers,” she said.
Berman said she hasn't noticed an increase in noise in her Edina home. She said she hasn't heard any noise from the people she represents to the south of the airport, either.
“I know that there have been complaints; I know that there have been calls. I have not had calls,” she said, adding quickly that she preferred that the lack of complaints not be mentioned in the paper.
“They know where to find me,” she said of her constituents. “I'm accessible.”
Scovronski said the airports commission was inundated with 1,148 calls in the week following the opening of the north/south runway.
She said the average number of complaint calls per month is typically about 1,500.
Dan Boivin, MAC commissioner representing Minneapolis, said he's been hearing that people in Berman's district have been hit with more noise but that he hasn't heard from anyone in Minneapolis grateful for lessened noise.
“You've got to remember, you've got such a large group of South Minneapolis people whose houses have already been insulated [by the MAC], so they kind of don't think about it anymore.”
Tim Hagar, a Tangletown resident, said he looks forward to a quieter airport, but that he's not holding his breath, waiting for the sound of silence or anything approaching it.
“It's like living in two different worlds,” he said as he looked up at a Northwest jet passing overhead on its way out of town. He paused for about 30 seconds, until the roar lessened and he could be heard again. “We talk like normal people for a couple of minutes and then it's like we're all in a silent movie when planes take off. We're silent, but the planes aren't.”
As Lynnhurst's Don Tracy stood near Lake Harriet, he cast a wary eye at the skies. “Northwest got what it wanted with the north/south [runway],” he said. “And now they say they're bankrupt. We've still got the racket, they've got our money - you just know that this isn't the end of it. What else do they want?”
Boivin said he expects Northwest to come to the MAC with hat in hand, demanding reductions in lease payments and other monies due in 2006 and beyond.
All's quiet on the Northwest front
MAC spokesperson Patrick Hogan said the airports commission hasn't heard from Northwest about any such plans. He said the airline's bankruptcy hasn't changed anything yet.
“We've been working together closely on issues of concern, but to date, it really hasn't had a very significant impact on the airports commission.”
He said the airline could reject their leases on airport properties, including gates at the Lindbergh terminal.
“Every indication is that they're going to continue to fly here and maintain their hub service here,” he said.
He said Northwest is current on all its payments due to MAC, but that the airline owed the commission $5 million for leases at the time it filed bankruptcy. That amount will have to be reconciled in bankruptcy court, he said.
Northwest pays about $166 million annually to the MAC, including $50 million on passenger facility charges attached to airline tickets purchased by travelers. The rest comes from leases and rentals.
A Northwest spokesperson declined to say whether the airline would ask for payment reductions. “We evaluate yearly the proposed MAC budget and make requests and suggestions based on our needs and the condition of the entire airline industry.: an e-mail from the airline stated.
Hogan said a decision on the Northwest and Pawlenty proposed expansion of the airport terminals and facilities has been put off until next summer while the airline works to lower its labor costs in bankruptcy.