Airport bills draw support from Minneapolis residents, skepticism from airport officials

Airport staff "bewildered" by chronic noise complaints

Although the Federal Aviation Administration has shelved plans to alter flight paths departing from MSP Airport, legislators are bracing for the issue to return.

In preparation, State Sen. Scott Dibble and State Rep. Frank Hornstein have proposed bills that would require more environmental review for airport expansion, require more collaboration between Minnesota airports, and swap industry representatives for community members on a revamped Noise Oversight Committee (NOC).

“I don’t think I’ve heard from more people on any issue,” Dibble said. “Clearly, something’s not working.”

While Minneapolis advocates supported the changes at a March 4 hearing, the bills met resistance from the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and current NOC representatives.

MAC Executive Director Jeff Hamiel said the airport has already completed an exhaustive environmental review on its expansion plans that amount to 2,700 pages. (The airport is planning additional gates, parking, roadway improvements and terminal space to handle a forecasted 40 percent growth in aircraft operations by 2030.) The FAA looked at the documents and determined the expansion would have no significant environmental impact, so an EIS wasn’t required.

“I challenge anyone to read that document and find something that is excluded,” Hamiel said.

In response, Hornstein said he takes issue not with the length of the document, but with its comprehensiveness. A full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) would consider alternative strategies, he said, and would require more public input.

RNAV — a controversial proposal that would consolidate planes into fewer flight paths — currently does not require an EIS either. The new bill would require that an EIS include the study of RNAV and noise levels before the airport can expand.

Southwest-area residents learned about RNAV two weeks before the MAC’s vote on implementation in November 2012. In response, residents quickly gathered 4,000 signatures opposing the plans. (The current tally stands at 6,000.)

But residents weren’t the only ones surprised. Elizabeth Petschel, a NOC representative from the city of Mendota Heights, testified that the NOC was “blindsided” when an FAA representative showed up “out of the blue” and said they were planning RNAV implementation in six weeks.

Hamiel said the NOC started studying RNAV in 2007, however, and votes on the issue had been taken for years.

“Minneapolis should have been on top of the issue,” he said.

Kevin Terrell, a Lynnhurst resident and co-founder of the MSP FairSkies Coalition, said RNAV generated a visceral reaction from residents because many moved here for the quality of life.

“They found this process to be a D.C.-driven change that didn’t reflect the local perspective,” he said.

But even if the MAC completed an EIS, he said, it probably would find no significant noise impact, due to the way noise is measured and the standards that are used.

MSP FairSkies wants to change that. Most of Europe uses noise thresholds of 55 decibels, Terrell said, while the MAC uses 60 decibels to determine noise mitigation. A contour map using the 55 decibel threshold would reach out to the Edina boundary, he said, covering 30 percent of the school kids in Minneapolis.

“One of the concerns that we’ve heard is this is a federal issue and we can’t do anything about it,” Terrell said. But the FAA already allows the use of alternative noise metrics in states like California, he said.

“The FAA relies on a recommendation from the MAC for making decisions on big operational changes,” he said. “We think we can use bills like this to drive some of that change and attention to the local detail.”

Several other Minneapolis advocates provided testimony at the March hearing.

Fulton resident Jan Wagener said most local schools don’t have air conditioning. She said that even at a 55-decibel level of plane noise, studies show a negative impact on students’ reading comprehension and long-term recall.

Kingfield resident Dean Amundson of MSP FairSkies laid out the diverse demographics of areas under flight paths.

“It’s not just an upper-class problem,” he said. “It’s not one you can label as NIMBY [not in my backyard].”

Realtor Jane Paulus said she’s fielded 10 phone calls from residents in Armatage and Kenny who made significant investments in homes now valued at $800,000 and might leave due to airplane noise.

“I think it’s an unfair burden that you’re putting on housing stock that is just starting to grow and will only improve,” she said. “As the airplane noise increases, they say ‘I do not want to buy in that neighborhood.'”

Complaints about airplane noise “bewildered” Hamiel, who said MSP has spent the most dollars per capita in the nation on noise mitigation, and was the first airport to insulate schools.

In addition, he said, the recession has led to fewer flights and lower passenger levels. He said more airlines now only fly profitable routes, resulting in lost air service to places like Brainerd and Thief River Falls. Older planes are being retired, he said. The DC-9 flew its last trip out of Minneapolis about two weeks ago. The retired plane is three times noisier than newer models, he said.

“If you compared the noise contour from 2007 versus today, 8,900 homes already mitigated would not qualify,” Hamiel said. “The FAA looks at us and says you’re totally over-mitigated.”

Petschel described the current agreement that provides noise mitigation for homes inside the 60 decibel noise contour as “fragile,” and said she was concerned about the Legislature’s potential mandate for an EIS.

“The FAA has made an exception on our behalf, because of the credibility of this group,” she said. “My concern is it’s going to jeopardize that agreement.”

Petschel defended the current makeup of NOC, as did Hamiel.

Hamiel said that NOC’s predecessor, the Metropolitan Aircraft Sound Abatement Council, disbanded because it became an ineffective center for “community discontent,” with communities battling over where planes should fly. Petschel said the current NOC was designed to be the “antithesis” of that group.

Another NOC member, Richfield City Council Member Tom Fitzhenry, said the NOC has effectively resolved issues like noisy air cargo carriers over Richfield and tail-to-tail traffic in Minneapolis. Anyone can file a noise complaint and see the offending flight online 10 minutes after the incident, he said.

“Where we put the planes is really a political decision for each city. Cities do have an impact on where flight paths will go,” he said.

Fitzhenry said RNAV is Richfield’s solution to route planes over areas zoned to handle airplane noise.

“Our voice may not be the loudest, but our airport noise is the loudest,” he said.

The NOC currently consists of six community appointees and six industry representatives from airlines, UPS and the Minnesota Business Aviation Association.

Hornstein said the NOC has become “almost a rubber stamp,” and said the airline industry has a disproportionate amount of influence.

The proposed bill calls for a 13-member group primarily consisting of community members, with two MAC appointees.

Another proposed bill would mandate collaboration between regional airports and suggests planning for ground transport between airports. Hornstein said airports are much more interconnected on the East Coast. He said the St. Cloud Regional Airport is adding daily United flights to Chicago, and communities in central and northern Minnesota would benefit from new rail connections.

At the hearing, Hamiel said airports already collaborate on a regular basis. He said he isn’t threatened by planes migrating to other Minnesota locations, but planes go where the people are. State demographers project 900,000 more residents will move into Minneapolis and St. Paul between now and 2040, Hamiel said.

“We know the community is going to grow, and we know we have to have more aviation services to meet the community’s growing needs,” he said. “If we don’t, there is economic disaster.”

At the end of the hearing, Dibble noted the numerous calls he’s received from constituents.

“I think people are accurate in predicting that the FAA will be back pretty soon with the same proposal,” he said, adding that the FAA has ample federal preemption to override local opinion. “We’re not beating up on the MAC, we’re looking for ways to engage productively with the host communities that surround it. We’re looking for opportunities to examine in the full light of day with some measure of accountability what really is proposed to occur.”


Proposed airport bills at a glance

SF 2208: The current Noise Oversight Committee that studies airport noise would disband. In its place, a new community environmental committee would consist of 13 members — 11 chosen by communities with the most airplane noise, and two chosen by the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

SF 2209: Airports in Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Rochester would make joint recommendations and plans on airport development, which may include plans for ground transport between the airports.

SF 2210: The Metropolitan Airports Commission would complete an Environmental Impact Statement in order to expand as planned. The environmental review must include a study of RNAV (area navigation).