Delco officials sue to block airspace redesign: They say the FAA didn't fully study environmental effects, and the proposed shift will make only small cuts in delays

Sep. 15--Keeping a vow they made last week, Delaware County officials filed suit yesterday in an effort to stop the Federal Aviation Administration from routing more airplanes over residential areas as a way to reduce flight delays.

County officials contended in the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia, that the FAA had not fully studied the environmental effects of its airspace-redesign plan for the Philadelphia and New York areas. What's more, the suit said, based on the federal agency's own data, the plan will result in only small reductions in delays of flights taking off from Philadelphia International Airport.

The FAA announced last week that it could begin using the new headings for airplanes taking off from Philadelphia and four New York-area airports -- Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark and Teterboro -- by the end of October.

Most flights leaving Philadelphia now head west, over the Delaware River, before making turns after reaching about 3,000 feet. When air traffic is at its heaviest, the FAA wants to direct pilots to turn immediately after takeoff and go in one of three directions, including over portions of lower Delaware County and Gloucester County that now experience relatively little aircraft noise.

The lawsuit was filed in the federal appeals court for the region because it is a petition for review of an order of a federal administrative agency, county officials said in a statement. Similar suits were filed last week against the FAA by the City of Elizabeth, N.J., and Rockland County, N.Y.

The FAA, as a matter of policy, does not comment on pending litigation, agency spokeswoman Arlene Salac-Murray said.

Delaware County announced the suit at a bipartisan news conference at the Tinicum Township Municipal Building attended by the five members of the Republican-dominated County Council and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a Democrat.

"The peak noise levels will be intolerable to residents who live below the new flight paths, which will have large jets and other aircraft passing only hundreds of feet above rooftops in many of our neighborhoods," Andrew Reilly, chairman of the Delaware County Council, said in a statement.

Sestak called litigation a "powerful strategy to hold the FAA accountable for following the correct process" as it developed the airspace-redesign plan.

The agency's plan, almost a decade in the making, involves numerous changes in routes and other procedures designed to keep planes moving efficiently through what it calls "the busiest, the most complex airspace in the world." On any given day, the FAA says, one-sixth of the world's air traffic flows through the airspace encompassing Philadelphia and New York.

Flight delays at Philadelphia International and at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports in the New York area are usually the worst in the country.

From January through July, 64.4 percent of Philadelphia flights arrived on time and 67.1 percent departed on time, the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics reported last week. At the three New York-area airports, less than 60 percent of the flights were on time during the seven-month period.

Contact staff writer Tom Belden at 215-854-2554 or

To see more of The Philadelphia Inquirer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to Copyright (c) 2007, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. For reprints, email, call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.