Will 2014 be the year of airport-noise ‘superhighways’?

For those of us who love everything about Southwest except airport noise, RNAV is a big deal. The proposed GPS-guided system will push plans into tighter, altered courses. Opponents have lambasted RNAV for creating “noise superhighways.” A 400-person town hall meeting a few months ago showed how potent the issue is. Currently on hold, RNAV may become unstuck in 2014.

To get the best sense of RNAV, Google and use MSP “flight tracker.” Ignore landing tracks — they won’t change, experts say. But you’ll see that today’s takeoffs splay throughout Southwest. RNAV would create two concentrations:

— A largely new westerly track just north of the Crosstown, which could send 100-plus takeoffs a day over neighborhoods like Fulton, Lynnhurst and Tangletown, plus Edina. This is the biggest change; these areas see few takeoffs currently.

— A northwest, 100-jet track over Kingfield, East Harriet and East Calhoun. These areas would see more traffic, but this track essentially gathers departures now shooting straight off the north-parallel runway, plus a few splayed “mini-tracks” to northwest.

The Federal Aviation Commission (FAA) is installing RNAV at major U.S. airports because it saves fuel, accommodates more planes, and reduces tower demands. RNAV also lets planes be tightly herded over noise-optimal flyways like the Minnesota River south of MSP.

Southwest’s problem is that there is no natural flyway — no workable line north of the Crosstown that isn’t a residential mass. In essence, RNAV reconfigures current “air streets.” My house, now on the equivalent of an “air residential,” street, would be a block from the new northwest “air 35W.”

After Southwest’s outcry, MSP’s Metropolitan Airports Commission voted to support RNAV for all but the takeoffs over us. The FAA is studying this so-called “partial implementation.” Local activists fear the agency will “fully implement” RNAV, which it can do despite local opposition.

The FAA has been mum about its timetable to city, MAC and Congressional officials. An agency spokeswoman told me, “We will not discuss until we have a chance to complete our review and share our findings with the MAC. This may not happen until early 2014.”

The betting among officials I spoke with is that the FAA won’t fully implement, approving partial or none at all. “None” would piss off the southern ’burbs, who crave RNAV for its flyway-optimization. (Minneapolis supports the suburbs on this.)

In the same breath, every official I spoke to expects full RNAV within five years. So what should Southwest Minneapolis hope for?

Philosophically, comes down to whether you believe the pain should be spread (many suffering somewhat) or concentrated (a few suffer a lot but many get smaller measures of relief). RNAV opponents favor spreading, either because they’re egalitarians or selfishly want to protect home purchases bought after careful flight-path study.

When considering where you stand, know that RNAV creates “winners” as well as “losers.” That northwest “concentrator” over my house? It would provide some relief to those under the current parallel landing paths over Linden Hills, East Harriet and Tangletown.

Because today’s landing paths are RNAV-tight, sound bludgeons these homes. However, residents also endure takeoffs — 9 percent of all 2012 north-parallel departures. Those takeoffs would shift near my off-the-landing-path house. Fair or unfair?

Similar vein: as a work-at-home guy, I’ve perceived more airport noise recently. Turns out east-of-35W neighborhoods had been enduring the bulk of north-northwest departures on the “due north” 360-degree heading. So in July 2012, the MAC — with city encouragement — rebalanced on the 340 and 320 headings. I’m around 320, and get probably 16 more daily takeoffs my way.

Should I be pissed — or pleased the MAC “spread it out”?

RNAV paths are narrow because planes must hit specific waypoints. One Minneapolis official expects a push for more west-northwest waypoints, creating more routes. Southwest may not have the 30-some takeoff pathways it does now, but would have more than two. We may wind up with several “air Nicollets,” “air Bryants,” or “air Xerxes” instead of a couple “air 35Ws.” No one knows if the FAA will buy this “waypoint necklace,” or whether more RNAV routes over more houses mean more torches and pitchforks. Of course the FAA isn’t talking.

Activists are also pushing for “supply-side” solutions — for example, pressuring the FAA to make better use of south-facing, RNAV-superior Runway 17, underutilized since its construction. Lynnhurst’s Kevin Terrell, who doggedly analyzes MAC stats, says since noise complaints soared earlier this year, 17’s use has gone up.

The noisiest, rattletrap hush-kit retrofitted planes have disappeared from MSP, and total flight traffic has dropped, but the noise problems aren’t imagined. Planes fly lower due to summer weather, and the interrupted sleep and conversations remain very real. For now, fate remains in the hands of a federal agency with other priorities, and that may be the most disquieting thing of all. 

David Brauer is a former Journal editor who lives in Kingfield, where he chaired the neighborhood association and farmers market boards. Find him on Twitter @dbrauer.