The local fight to prevent so-called “super-highways” in the sky is over, for the moment.
The Federal Aviation Administration announced Wednesday that it would not implement RNAV (area navigation) departures over the airport at this time.
The FAA is rolling out RNAV nationwide to point planes on consolidated routes out of each airport, a change designed to improve safety and efficiency and reduce fuel emissions. But protest in Southwest Minneapolis prompted the local Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) to ask for partial implementation, to prevent unlucky homeowners under the proposed flight paths from experiencing constant plane noise. The MAC asked for implementation only over southern cities like Eagan, where planes can fly over the Minnesota River Valley and disturb fewer residents.
MAC spokesman Pat Hogan said the changes have been controversial in other cities, but he believes Minneapolis is the only airport where RNAV implementation was halted.
“Nowhere has it run into a brick wall the way it has here,” he said.
Following a safety study, the FAA decided that partial implementation as requested would be unsafe. Hogan explained that if pilots needed to switch runways due to factors like weather or wind — something that happens two or three times each day — they would need to switch their entire departure procedure.
“They would have to code this in at the same time they’re taxiing,” he said. “There is too much room for confusion.”
More than 400 people packed the Washburn High School auditorium last summer to voice concerns about RNAV to Congressmen Keith Ellison and Erik Paulsen.
“Rarely do I speak for Republicans, but we’re together on this, right?” Ellison said to Paulsen at the forum. “I believe the situation deserves a lot more study.”
The MSP FairSkies Coalition formed last year to advocate for area residents. Member Steve Kittleson said the recent decision is “good news.” He said the group will continue to push for more thorough environmental studies of potential airport changes. MSP FairSkies would also like to change the way noise is measured, and lower the sound threshold that triggers noise mitigation in homes.
“At the end of the day, they still want to grow the airport considerably,” Kittleson said. “All the remaining issues are still important to our neighborhood.”
The FAA will move forward to implement RNAV for arriving planes, which is less controversial. New technology would allow planes to follow a continuous descent toward landing. Today, planes start the descent process many miles from the airport, descending and leveling off in a stair-step pattern, which is noisy and uses extra fuel.
Southwest Minneapolis probably won’t feel the impact of the change, said Council Member John Quincy (11th Ward).
“It’s really a benefit to people further from the airport,” he said. “It will provide environmental improvements and cost-savings.”
In Atlanta, Delta Airlines reported saving 60 gallons of fuel per flight by using the new descent procedures.
If the FAA takes up the RNAV departure issue again in the future, it would undertake a community engagement plan requested last year by the MAC.
FAA Spokesman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the MAC vote stopped the FAA from pursuing full implementation of RNAV.
“There is a local requirement that the airport needs to support the FAA recommendation,” she said. “That’s why we went on a yearlong study of partial implementation. … If SIDS [Standard Instrument Departures] was reconsidered at any time, we’re going to be working with the MAC and the [MSP Noise Oversight Committee] on community outreach — if that happens.”
“We’re pleased that as they do move forward, we’re at the table,” Quincy said. “It was a long-awaited decision, and it’s nice to have certainty.”