Airplanes taking off from Palm Beach International Airport would pass over fewer neighborhoods if the airport's runway for non-airline planes is lengthened to accommodate airliners, according to air traffic controllers.
During peak weekend hours, many departing planes are told to turn north just after takeoff: a move that sends them over neighborhoods near Belvedere Road and Dixie Highway. The turn, called an alternate heading, allows planes to take off faster and leaves more time for incoming aircraft to land.
"We can't get them out fast enough, even using alternative headings," PBIA Air Traffic Manager Joe Roberts said.
The average weekend delay during peak months is about 30 minutes, and at times non-airline pilots must wait up to an hour before they are cleared for takeoff, he said.
An extended runway along with a second runway would give controllers more space, and reduce -- but not eliminate -- the need for the northward turn, controllers say. That would put fewer planes over neighborhoods near Belvedere Road and reduce the amount of airport noise there, but would send more flights and increase the noise over neighborhoods near Southern Boulevard.
The Federal Aviation Administration is studying the $69 million extension, which would boost the airport's capacity by creating two parallel runways long enough for airline jets.
"If they don't need to use the alternative heading, these people are not going to see planes," said Lisa De Le Rionda, the airport's noise abatement director.
West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel isn't as sure. She says there is no guarantee that a second runway would eliminate the need to "fan" planes north.
"What everyone believes is that at any given time a plane can be fanned," Frankel said. "There is no assurance that it's not going to get fanned."
PBIA controllers are required to keep departing planes at least 3 miles from one another unless there is a 15-degree angle separating them.
During rush-hour at the airport, controllers say, they cannot wait for a departing plane to travel 3 miles straight out over the ocean before allowing the next plane to take off. There would not be enough time for arriving planes to land, they say.
Instead, pilots are told to turn their planes north, away from other planes that have departed before them.
"They use every minute they can," Roberts said. "Their goal is the safe and expeditious control of aircraft."
With a second runway, arriving flights will have a designated strip for landing. That would leave more time for flights to take off by using the airport's preferred track -- straight out over the ocean -- before turning toward their destination.
This year the FAA began a 2 1/2-year, $2.8 million environmental study to consider lengthening PBIA's general aviation runway from 3,210 to 8,000 feet so it can accommodate airline jets. General aviation includes any kind of non-airline aircraft.
The extension has been a sore spot for many residents living east of the airport who fear it will put more planes and more noise over their homes.
Frankel said the city already has lost one neighborhood to airport noise: the Hillcrest community, where roughly 350 homes were demolished or relocated in the late 1980s.
There is fear, the mayor said, that the airport would have to buy more homes because of a second runway.
The Vedado neighborhood, just north of Southern Boulevard and west of Parker Avenue, sits next to the 90-acre airport buyout zone. It would be the site most affected by the runway extension.
Controllers admit that reducing the northward turn would send more planes east over areas near the buyout zone on Parker Avenue.
"I think the main concern really is the increase in the traffic," Frankel said. "What we are interested in as a whole is how to mitigate the noise and the environmental implications that are occurring now as well as with the expansion. I don't think anybody realistically believes that we are going to get rid of this airport."
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