Showtime for the FAA

Next month, the Federal Aviation Administration is due to announce its decision on the first redesign of the region's airspace in almost half a century.

The New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Airspace Redesign project will change airline traffic patterns with the goal of reducing flight times and airport delays. Other concerns include shortening take-off and landing routes into and out of area airports to reduce fuel consumption and keeping low-altitude air traffic away from residential areas as much as possible.

The FAA has considered four alternatives, but it's widely known that the agency prefers what is called the Integrated Airspace Alternative. It's a complicated overhaul of air traffic patterns designed to more efficiently direct aircraft into and out of the region's airports. The FAA says implementing the Integrated Airspace Alternative will save 12 million minutes of delay annually at New York's three major airports as well as Philadelphia International Airport.

From a Staten Island perspective, that plan would send planes departing from Newark Liberty Airport straight out down the path of the New Jersey Turnpike and nearby industrial areas, rather than requiring pilots to bank hard to the left over Staten Island after leaving Runway 22. That will save about eight minutes per flight and allow planes to take off more quickly than they can do currently.

Obviously, Integrated Airspace is good news for people who live in the northwest portion of Staten Island and who have been beset by thundering aircraft for years.

The proposal makes the most sense for airline travelers and crews as well as the airlines themselves in terms of convenience, safety and efficiency.

But so far, the FAA hasn't been able to bring itself to rule out other options. It was recently learned that the FAA is considering using Integrated Airspace during the busiest daytime hours, but then switching to what's called the Ocean Routing alternative at night.

Ocean Routing is a cockamamie concept dreamed up by affluent New Jersey suburbanites who can't bear the thought of an airplane flying anywhere near their toney communities. And they have a lot of influence, not just with New Jersey senators and congressmen, but also, curiously, with the FAA.

Ocean Routing calls for planes leaving Newark to fly down the route of the Arthur Kill, then east over the Raritan Bay, before ascending into their assigned routes toward their destinations. Of course planes trying to navigate that route would be heard all down the West Shore, and they would inevitably clip off the southwestern tip of Staten Island as they headed over the Raritan, disturbing South Shore communities.

Not only would Ocean Routing waste time and fuel as planes have to go well out of their way to follow this circuitous route, but the planes would have to fly dangerously close to planes arriving and departing Kennedy and LaGuardia airports.

It's as dumb a plan as there is, on a number of levels. The FAA even said as much itself in previous studies. So did the Port Authority.

But the FAA has been intimidated by the well-connected cadre of suburban New Jersey activists, New Jersey Citizens Against Air Noise and has always been afraid to tell them no. Last year, the FAA said that while it thought Ocean Routing was a terrible idea, it was keeping it on the list of alternative plans as a "courtesy" to these folks. How's that for responsible policy-making.

And now, the FAA says it's considering actually using this dangerous and wasteful routing plan at night. OK, it's not Ocean Routing 24/7, but it still makes little sense.

The plan is bad enough by itself for all the reasons, but consider the additional safety problems posed by switching flight patterns from day to night. Wouldn't that confuse pilots. What happens if one pilot on a nighttime flight mistakenly follows the Integrated Airspace route while another follows Ocean Routing?

Yet that's the kind of headache the FAA is willing to take on in order to appease NJCAAN.

And, when the FAA scheduled hearings on the airspace redesign proposals, it left Staten Island off the itinerary. (Of course, there were several noisy hearings in NJCAAN country.)

Sen. Hillary Clinton recently wrote to FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey, demanding that the agency hold at least one public hearing here, so Staten Islanders' voices can finally be heard.

We're not sure the FAA has ever wanted to hear what Staten Island has to say.

Rep. Vito Fossella, who has long fought the FAA on this issue, said implementing the Integrated Airspace is "a no-brainer, if common sense prevails and the FAA wants to do the right thing."

The fact that an idea as preposterous as Ocean Routing has survived to this point in the process calls both of those notions into question.

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