The fight over the right-hand turn flight plan will go to federal court after the Las Vegas City Council unanimously voted Wednesday to allot up to $357,000 for lawyers and a consultant to battle the Federal Aviation Administration decision.
A petition will be filed early next week challenging the FAA's decision to send hundreds of planes a day over the northwest Las Vegas Valley, said attorney Barbara Lichman of Chevalier, Allen and Lichman, who addressed the City Council on Wednesday.
Her California law firm received a contract worth up to $300,000. Williams Aviation Consulting, out of Arizona, received a $57,000 contract, which was reduced from the original cap of $100,000 that the council had considered.
The new flight path remains set to take effect in mid-March, said Del Meadows, air traffic hub manager for the FAA.
Councilman Steve Wolfson asked Lichman the $357,000 question: "Can this case be won?"
"That would depend on your definition of winning," she said.
She went on to say that representing futile cases would hurt the law firm in the long run.
"Taking losing cases would be like committing hari-kari," she said. But, she added, "The burden of proof will be on us to show the decision is not based on facts."
She said the grounds for challenge could include noise impacts to residents under the new flight path; safety issues with potential conflicts to North Las Vegas Airport and Nellis Air Force Base; and air quality issues from emissions from planes idling on McCarran's runways as they get clearance from Nellis air traffic.
She said after the meeting that many less drastic alternatives could be negotiated with the FAA. It would be up to the City Council to decide how far, and for how long, the fight is waged, she said.
Councilman Steve Ross, who represents the far northwest portion of the city, said he originally had opposed the costly legal fight. But after looking at all the accidents at North Las Vegas Airport, he decided to support it because of safety concerns.
"I'm not going to apologize to residents of my ward ... because this is prudent," he said.
Mayor Oscar Goodman and other council members also acknowledged many constituents' resistance to spending the money to fight the new flight path. Goodman added to the motion for expenditure approval a requirement that Lichman update the City Council within 45 days on the progress of the case and the potential of winning it.
Lichman said that the FAA rarely initiates a change in flight plan on its own. Instead, she suggested that the change might be driven by airlines looking for fuel savings on flights taking the northern turn before heading east.
"I have one word: fuel," she said.
Lichman also said the question of how the change might affect air quality was given "short shrift" in the FAA's environmental analysis used to justify the flight path. The new flight path could be detrimental to air quality because more planes might have to idle for longer periods on the runway to make sure there was no conflict with Nellis flights.
Goodman said the air quality issue, as well as the impact on tourism that an airplane crash would have, makes this a regional problem.
"This is not just a Las Vegas problem," he said.
Any accident "would have a devastating effect on the economy. ... I hope the county is listening."
Clark County, which oversees McCarran International Airport as well as North Las Vegas Airport, has not taken a formal position on the new flight path.
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