It's a far cry from the Battle of Britain, but federal leaders could face a dogfight in their quest to divert many aircraft above densely populated portions of the Las Vegas Valley as flights depart McCarran International Airport.
Citing the need to better accommodate increasing air traffic at the nation's sixth-busiest passenger airport, the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday restated its case to allow some eastbound planes to resume flights directly over neighborhoods such as Summerlin, The Lakes and portions of North Las Vegas.
Some local residents, including members of the Las Vegas City Council, oppose the FAA's plan. But Clark County's top aviation leader said Tuesday he'll support it, and state leaders in Washington add they're closely following the proceedings.
Before October 2001, aircraft regularly took off to the west from one of McCarran's two east-west runways, climbed thousands of feet above the city, then turned right, or north, along the valley's western rim. From there, planes would again turn right and continue eastward to cities such as Denver, Chicago or New York.
Four years ago, the FAA instituted a new flight path that forced all westward takeoffs to turn to the left, or south, before altering course toward their intended destination.
Though the change was originally made to avoid congestion near Nellis Air Force Base, an FAA leader said new technologies allow jets to resume the old route without causing problems with military jets at Nellis.
"These new procedures give us the ability to put back the efficiency we lost in 2001," Del Meadows, the FAA's air traffic hub manager in Las Vegas, said Tuesday at McCarran. "The (proposed routes) would result in fewer flying miles and save fuel costs for airlines."
McCarran's flight patterns are subject to numerous criteria including weather, time of year and aircraft congestion, but Meadows said about 75 percent of the airport's nearly 608,000 flight operations this year took off to the west. The proposed changes would not affect eastbound takeoffs above Eastern Avenue, or flights using McCarran's dual northeast-by-southwest runways.
Until 2001, Meadows said approximately 60 percent of McCarran's westbound takeoffs flew directly over the city. The FAA's new proposal would put about 33 percent of flights over the valley, with other flights continuing to the southwest after takeoff.
Clark County Aviation Director Randall Walker said airport leaders believe the FAA's "right turn" proposal would improve McCarran's efficiency by giving controllers another way to put distance between aircraft taking off to the west. In fact, he said airport leaders lobbied the FAA to keep a similar turn in place before the FAA adopted the existing "left turn" path.
"By forcing all of the planes to turn left, they actually reduced our capacity," Walker said. "I think they've realized that change was bad and are doing what we suggested should have been done four years ago."
Walker said he sympathizes with residents who don't want planes flying above their homes, though he added that option is increasingly unlikely as Las Vegas continues to develop. He also said a wider selection of routes is more equitable for residents in the southwest valley who now have almost all westbound flights soaring above.
"There's no way to take planes off in any direction and not have it fly over someone's home," Walker said.
Greg Toussaint, a resident of The Lakes who's become a de facto leader of those opposed to the FAA's change, disagreed.
He said most residents in southwest Las Vegas knew they were moving into an overflight zone when they bought their homes, whereas residents of other areas of the city did not. Directing planes over the heart of the city would "make 500,000 people suffer" to the benefit of residents of less-populated parts of the community.