Critics of the Federal Aviation Administration's plan to direct as many as 200 flights a day over the western Las Vegas Valley have shifted the focus of their opposition from aircraft noise to what they say would be increased safety risks from altering the flight paths.
Despite assurances from FAA officials, members of a panel formed by the city say that turning planes over more densely populated areas would put more people at risk from falling parts or crashing planes.
"They're going to take 50,000 planes a year and route them over a half-million people. If there is a chance of a crash, and if it occurs at Meadows mall, it won't be a minor thing," said Jim Twohig, a retired commercial airline pilot and member of the city panel. "This plan is not as safe as it could be."
FAA officials deny that the change would increase danger to passengers in the air or residents on the ground.
"Safety is the one thing we don't compromise," said Del Meadows, the FAA's air traffic manager for the Las Vegas area.
"We certainly take into consideration what's under the flight track. We look at the efficiency of the airspace, and does the plan increase efficiency and maintain the level of safety that's always there. It does."
Until recently, the debate over the plan focused almost exclusively on the noise the aircraft would bring to the area. The FAA has not yet responded to a request from Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas, for a test run of the new path so that residents can hear just how noisy the planes would be flying over their homes.
FAA officials have added an additional 60 days to the public comment period on their proposal. They have not announced any new community meetings.
If the proposal is implemented, some planes would take off from McCarran International Airport toward the west. At roughly the Las Vegas Beltway, the planes would begin heading north - a right turn - until reaching Lake Mead Boulevard. From there, the planes would head east.
The new path would be similar to one eliminated in 2001, in part because of safety concerns.
But Meadows said new navigational technology allows planes to adhere more closely to specific flight paths and altitudes. Only planes with the new technology would be allowed to use the new route, Meadows said.
While the planes would be heading closer to North Las Vegas Airport and Nellis Air Force Base than current routes permit, Meadows said there is plenty of separation.
"It doesn't decrease safety in any way," he said.
Nellis spokesman Mike Estrada said the base was told a year ago about the proposal and has concerns about safety.
The area under the proposed flight path is more densely populated than areas under current flight paths. According to numbers prepared by city of Las Vegas staff, there is an average of 2.6 people per acre under the first 20 miles of the current flight path. The new flight path passes over about 13 people per acre.
There are 1,525 housing units under the existing path. Beneath the proposed right-turn path, there would be 19,649 units.
"It makes no sense to have planes do a 180-degree turn over the city," said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Jones, who lives in Summerlin. "Maneuvering over the city is a plan for disaster."
Jones, who used to work for the FAA, said no airport of which he is aware has planes making turns over a densely populated city.
Randall Walker, director of the Clark County Department of Aviation, which operates McCarran, said staff members have encountered no safety concerns with the proposal.
"I've had disagreements with the FAA, but one thing we never had disagreements about is safety," Walker said.
"I don't think they'd recommend and adopt a proposal that was not thoroughly vetted through the process."
He added that commercial flying is statistically much safer than driving.
"No one can say it will never happen, but from a safety standpoint, aviation is one of the safest modes of transport there is," he said. "And I think that includes people that might be injured on the ground."
McCarran protested in 2001 when the FAA eliminated the old right turn, Walker said. Since then, the county has urged the FAA "to fix the problem they created."
The current proposal would restore the efficiency lost in 2001, Walker said. But he was careful to say that the airport doesn't support this plan.
Today, the lack of the right turn means added delays. Eventually, though, Walker said, the inefficiency would reduce the number of passengers the airport could handle by about 1 million travelers per year. With the right turn, the airport projects that it will reach its limit of 53 million passengers a year in 2011.
Since debate of the plan began in November, Mayor Oscar Goodman repeatedly has said that his main concern is safety. When the FAA decided this month to allow public comment until March, Goodman said he hoped the committee would be able to provide the City Council, and eventually the FAA, with a report of concerns and questions about safety.
Although there haven't been any serious crashes at McCarran or cases of people being killed from falling plane debris in the Las Vegas Valley, Goodman has pointed to cases such as the Dec. 20 crash of a seaplane into the ocean off Miami. The crash claimed the lives of the 20 people onboard.
"Imagine if there were people under that plane," the mayor said.
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