New flight plan approved, faces anger and lawsuit

Posted: September 05, 2007

By Halloween, many more airplanes from Philadelphia International Airport could be roaring over residential parts of Delaware and Gloucester Counties, as part of a controversial plan to reduce flight delays that officials released today to howls on the ground.

The airspace redesign plan, which the Federal Aviation Administration formally announced after a decade of study and months of simmering debate, immediately drew a lawsuit threat by some residents and political leaders in the suburbs south and west of the airport.

"I think this is a colossal mistake," U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Delaware County) said in an interview.

Andrew Reilly, chairman of the Delaware County Council, said the county plans to file papers by the end of next week in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia to try to block the FAA plan, contending it violates federal environmental laws. The opponents have not been mollified by the FAA's changes last spring that reduced from seven to three the number of new routes that aircraft may fly immediately after takeoff from Philadelphia.

The redesign plan calls for changing the way planes take off and land at Philadelphia International and four New York-area airports - Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark and Teterboro, N.J. - so that the airspace is used more efficiently.

The New York-Washington corridor is among the most heavily traveled in the world, and Philadelphia and the three commercial airports in the New York area usually lead the list of the most delay-prone airports.

Through the first seven months of this year, 64.4 percent of Philadelphia flights arrived on time and 67.1 percent departed on time, according to a report this week by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The department said the record was even worse for Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark, with flights arriving on time less than 60 percent of the time.

Currently, jetliners fly over the Delaware River as they leave Philadelphia International. The new plan would create three alternative exit routes: One curving westward over Delaware County, a second extending southward over the county, and a third banking eastward over Gloucester County. The plan anticipates little change for landing patterns at the airport, with most planes approaching over northern Camden County.

At a briefing for reporters in Washington, Steve Kelley, manager of the FAA redesign program, said training could begin immediately for air-traffic controllers to use the three new takeoff routes, or headings. Controllers would be able to direct pilots to use one of the routes within "the next 30 to 60 days," he said.

Kelley and other FAA officials said they had heard the public's protests. Reducing the takeoff headings from seven to three would sharply limit the number of Delaware County residents who will hear more noise from planes taking off from the airport, the officials said.

With the new plan, he said more than 600,000 residents, among the 31 million in the New York and Philadelphia regions, will actually hear less aircraft noise than they would if the FAA did not create the new flight paths. Flight delays could be reduced by as much as 20 percent by 2011 under the plan, the FAA said in a news release.

Among other benefits, redesigning the airspace will help save fuel because planes will spend less time idling on runways waiting to take off, and will be able to reach higher altitudes faster where the thin air makes flying more fuel efficient, said Nancy Kalainowski, FAA's director of airspace management.

The Pennslvania and New Jersey elected officials said they weren't surprised by the FAA decision.

"It was clear to us for the last several months that FAA officials were just salesmen for the plan," Reilly said in an interview. He and others say individual airline flights will see delays reduced by only a minute or so.

New Jersey's U.S. senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, in a statement, also vowed to continue opposing the plan.

Sestak and U.S. Rep. Rob. Andrews, who represents Gloucester, persuaded congressional leaders to ask the Government Accountability Office to study the process that the FAA used, in hopes of gaining enough support to cut off funding for the plan. That study won't be completed until next spring.

"There is no cost analysis at all," Sestak said. "They haven't put one cent into studying what the noise impact would be."

The Air Transport Association, the major airlines' trade group, praised the FAA decision to proceed with the plan. Association president James C. May said in a statement it was "a much-needed first step to relieve unprecedented congestion in the Northeast and to maintain high standards of safety."

The airspace redesign also has the support of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce's CEO Council for Growth, which says the region's economy suffers from airline delays.

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2454 or

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