After spending two decades battling airport growth, residents living under Palm Beach International Airport's flight path are gearing up for their most challenging fight yet -- convincing federal and county officials that the airport's shortest runway...

"We continue to grow," county Airports Director Bruce Pelly said. "The city of West Palm Beach is going vertical on every block downtown, yet they look at the airport and say, why are you growing? We are in a position where we can almost double the capacity on that airfield."

Airport officials have maintained that the runway extension is needed to prevent lengthy delays, which could be up to 20 minutes long by 2018. The problems are during peak hours when multiple planes are trying to take off and land.

"We have got an issue now during the peak of the season where aircraft are sitting on the ground waiting to take off," Pelly said.

Sides argue over statistics

Those fighting the project, including Donald Trump, owner of the national historic landmark Mar-a-Lago, say noise and pollution from additional planes will harm the county's most historic neighborhoods.

They take aim at airport statistics that show growth in the number of flights and passengers using the airport.

Their chief complaints: The number of flights at PBIA is declining, and smaller general aviation planes could be relocated to the north county airport near Palm Beach Gardens and another in the Glades to free space at PBIA.

From 1990 to 2006, the number of flights at PBIA dropped 20 percent, according to federal records. During that time, the number of passengers grew from 5.7 million to 6.8 million.

"It's a significant decrease in activity," said West Palm Beach senior planner Alex Hansen, who has been working with Rodriguez and other neighborhood leaders. "What really creates the congestion is not the number of passengers, it's the number of operations."

Part of the reason for the decline is that many of the prop planes that used PBIA in the early 1990s were relocated to the north county airport when it opened in 1994, Pelly said.

"Just because the annuals are down doesn't mean the peaks aren't worse," he said. "We have eliminated a great number of the prop operations here. We built north county airport. All of that activity was going on someplace else."

Residents also are skeptical about the claim that passengers will be trapped in planes sitting on the runway if the expansion isn't completed. Most of the airport's use is from general aviation planes, such as corporate jets -- not commercial airliners.

"They are pitching this as people on commercial flights are going to be sitting and waiting," said Nancy Pullum, who lives in the historic El Cid neighborhood, which sits underneath the flight path. "It's not airliners. Sixty-five percent of the traffic is corporate jets and day jets. It takes as much airspace and time to land corporate jets and jets with 200 people."

Moving air traffic north

Unlike commercial airliners, general aviation planes do not have to pay a fee to land at the airport.

Residents say charging a fee could sway some pilots to use the northern airport. It also could be used to discourage flights during peak hours by charging pilots more to take off or land at those times, Hansen said.

Pelly said airport officials are looking to the north county airport as a reliever. The problem, he said, is that many of the general aviation planes that fly into PBIA are carrying Palm Beach residents who want to get home quickly.

"At the end of the day, if you've got the kind of money where you can afford the airplane, you want the airport closest to where you live," Pelly said. "These people aren't going to move their planes."

But with Palm Beach County's population growth slowing, the number of people who use the airport also could dwindle, nearby residents say.

Since 2000, the county's population has grown by about 25,000 annually, but in the past year that number has shrunk to 6,197.

Despite the drop, federal aviation officials project a steady increase in the number of flights at PBIA through 2025. This year, 198,627 flights are expected to take off and land at the airport. By 2025, that number is expected to grow to 280,846 -- an increase of 41 percent.

'Worse to get caught short'

Those opposed to the runway extension take aim at the projections, pointing to other forecasts did not come true.

A 1989 version of PBIA's master plan projected that roughly 8.3 million passengers would pass through in 1999. The number was expected to grow to 11.8 million by 2009.

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