Apr. 7 -- The Federal Aviation Administration, responding to a wave of protest from residents of Delaware County, proposed changes yesterday in its plan to reroute air traffic leaving Philadelphia International Airport in an effort to reduce the aircraft noise heard on the ground.
The agency said there would be only a small loss of "operational efficiency" to the air-traffic system by directing pilots to use only three departure paths as their jets climb toward cruising altitude after takeoff.
Two weeks ago, the FAA proposed using six paths, or headings, for planes to use when taking off to the west, which would have spread the noise impact over a wider geographic area. The FAA has said it could start using the new departure paths as early as August.
Two Delaware County elected officials criticized the revisions yesterday, calling them inadequate and unacceptable. "What Delaware County wants is for the planes to fly over the river until they reach a 3,000-foot altitude, and, at that point, make their turns over the county, or Jersey, or wherever they are heading," said Andrew J. Reilly, chairman of the Delaware County Council.
"Our experts contend that, by flying planes over Delaware County immediately after takeoff, all you're doing is putting more off-ramps onto the overcrowded highway in the sky."
The new analysis, included in a consultants' report to the FAA, also determined that air traffic departing Philadelphia International at night was light enough that planes could continue to fly down the Delaware River as they do now, reaching 3,000 feet before they turn over residential areas.
"Reducing the number of available departure headings at PHL from six headings to three headings would allow for some relief of the expected noise impacts while minimizing the loss of operational efficiency," the report said.
The report concluded that pilots also could use three or four departure paths, instead of seven, when planes are taking off from Philadelphia to the east. Airplanes always take off and land into the wind, which means they depart to the west about two-thirds of the time in this region.
Operational efficiency refers to the FAA's goal of reducing delays for airliners and other planes that now follow more circuitous, time-consuming paths in the sky before reaching cruising altitude. Philadelphia International and airports in the New York area have some of the worst records for on-time flights, and one reason is the inefficiency of the current air-traffic routing system, the FAA says.
But two opponents of the FAA's flight plan panned much of yesterday's report.
Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) praised the departure-headings change, but said overall the report fell short. "There's been some progess, but it's inadequate," he said.
Sestak, who has a scheduled meeting with the FAA administrator April 20, said the FAA's environmental-impact statement did not account for the effect of noise on people's health, education and safety, the environment and property values.
"Statistical studies have shown that this level of noise impacts people's health, education, their safety and the environment," he said. "None of this is accounted for in the process."
Sestak said he would support taking the FAA to court to delay the flight-path changes, but "recognizing however, the FAA has won 12 of the 13 times that they have been sued."
Reilly, the Council chairman, stood by his claim that there were no significant operational benefits to be gained by flying planes over the county.
Reilly said the report fell short in three key areas: It did not accurately account for the causes of delays at Philadelphia International Airport; it did not include all aerial traffic in the FAA's model; and it excluded 80 percent of the area's airports.
"While the FAA is boasting that their mitigation report mitigates the additional noise caused by their plan, they shouldn't even implement the plan, because there is no significant operational benefits from it," he said. "We should be talking about eliminating the noise, not mitigating it."
The FAA's airspace-redesign plan has been endorsed by the CEO Council for Growth, a unit of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, as a way to help the regional economy by reducing airline delays.
The fresh analysis was part of a report prepared by FAA contractor Mitre Corp. that found that different procedures could be used for takeoffs from all five of the airports the agency has been studying. The other airports -- Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark and Teterboro, N.J. -- are in the New York area.
The FAA began working on changing the airspace over the Northeast nine years ago. The agency held a series of public meetings last year before it issued a draft version of its environmental-impact statement.
The FAA will hold five public hearings on the noise-reduction study, one each in the states affected. Hearings in the Philadelphia area are scheduled for April 30 at Concord High School in Wilmington and May 1 at the Holiday Inn on Route 291, just west of the airport. The hearings will run from 6:30 to 9 p.m.
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