Metropolitan Airports Commission supports compromise in flight pattern plan

Proposed flight paths
This section of a larger map provided by the Federal Aviation Administration shows the proposed new flight paths out of Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport that concentrate routes to a few corridors over Minneapolis. The airport is at bottom, right. Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Lake Harriet are in the center. Full maps can be found below, in the story.
Map selection via FAA

The Metropolitan Airports Commission voted Monday to support partially implementing a proposed FAA change in flight patterns at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport that would concentrate the flight paths of planes flying in and out of the airport.

MAC commissioners voted for a compromise they say benefits all sides. However, FAA officials say partially implementing the plan has some potential problems.

The meeting at the MAC boardroom drew a standing room only crowd, and chair Daniel Boivin acknowledged that the board has not seen this level of public interest in a matter in a long time.

"I don't think in my one-year tenure as chairman, we've certainly not had this crowd," Boivin said. "With past crowds we'd have to go back to the '90s."

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By the sounds of the cheers and occasional jeers from dozens of people on hand, the majority in attendance were opposed to the proposed flight paths. Most were people who live in neighborhoods directly under what some fear will become a superhighway of airplane traffic.

• See maps below for proposed flight plans.

MAC commissioners were supposed to vote on whether to send a letter of support to the FAA, which would initiate the Area Navigation plan. But a compromise offered by commissioner Greg Foster, appointed to the MAC by Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, suggested implementing the RNAV rules as the FAA designed, with the exception of departures off of runway 30L and 30R.

"I was trying to get out of what I found in California. Now, I'm afraid you're going to take that away."

Planes that take off from these runways fly directly over parts of southwest Minneapolis and Edina. Foster's proposal could mean delaying the implementation of the new flight paths until at least mid-2014. The other runways at MSP would transition to the new system next spring.

However, different procedures for different runways could cause problems, said Dennis Roberts, FAA director of airspace services.

For example, the FAA is trying to reduce opportunities for pilots and air traffic controllers to miscommunicate. Roberts said as planes take off, air traffic controllers must instruct pilots which direction to fly and when to turn. One advantage of the new system is that by automating flight paths, fewer conversations between air traffic controllers and pilots will be needed.

"Every one of those is an opportunity of what we call an error on a 'hear back, read back,'" Roberts said. "It's a communication situation where the controller gives that pilot a new direction for every movement he or she would be making."

The new system will also will help airlines save fuel because satellites will help pilots fly the most efficient paths, Roberts said. But that also means those paths will be well-worn.

People who live under the proposed routes are unhappy about it. Kim Jones said she moved her four children from California a year and a half ago to Edina because they were looking for a quiet neighborhood with good schools.

Story continues below map.

"My biggest concern is, now that I have seen the new maps, I actually live immediately underneath the proposed flight plans," Jones said.

Jones said she has two sons with serious asthma and worries about increased air pollution. She said she's afraid the benefits she gained from moving here will be lost.

"I was trying to get out of what I found in California. Now, I'm afraid you're going to take that away," Jones said. "And I just ask you, please don't."

Residents and elected officials south of the airport had mixed reactions to the exception that gives a temporary reprieve to Minneapolis and Edina. John Bergman, a member of the MAC's Noise Oversight Committee from Apple Valley, said it is unfair that people in his area will have to deal with the new plan while those in other parts of the metro area will not.

"You make a consideration for Minneapolis, so the rest of the communities south on the parallels, now for the next two years, are going to be the experiment," Bergman said.

However, Boivin told Bergman that streamlining flight paths over areas to the south of the airport is a win. Boivin referred to an Eagan resident who supported the plan because it would mean fewer planes flying over his house.

FAA officials say they still need to conduct safety and environmental impact studies on the split runway plan voted for by the commission.

The remaining question is when the new navigation system will be adopted. FAA officials said the current system is woefully out of date and will be replaced.