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Though the change was originally made to avoid congestion near Nellis Air Force Base, an FAA leader said new technologies allow jets to resume the old route without causing problems with military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.
"There are tens of thousands of people who bought homes on the western rim of the valley with zero expectation of aircraft noise," Toussaint said.
Meadows contends planes must be at least 5,000 feet by the time they reach Durango Drive and the Las Vegas Beltway, then climb to 7,000 feet or more before flying over Rancho Drive and Washington Avenue. Those minimums are 1,000 feet higher than when planes followed similar paths until 2001.
But Toussaint, who serves on a McCarran-sponsored noise committee, does not believe the added height requirements will make any difference.
"Once a pilot takes off, he can go wherever he wants provided it's safe," Toussaint said. "Diagrams with nice little arrows aren't credible because pilots make the decisions."
Some residents are worried about more than noise. Paul Zeppa owns luxury homes near Rainbow Boulevard and the Las Vegas Beltway - an area he calls "airplane alley" - as well as at The Lakes, which sits directly beneath the FAA's proposed flight path.
He worries older aircraft may not have the engine strength to meet the FAA's suggested altitude requirements when taking off to the west and northwest. More importantly, Zeppa said a plane crash over Summerlin or The Lakes would "kill thousands" because those areas are densely populated.
"It's a safety issue," Zeppa said of keeping planes on their current path.
Public hearings are scheduled for 6 p.m. Dec. 12 at Sierra Vista High School, 8100 Robindale Road; and 6 p.m. Dec. 13 at Centennial High School, 10200 Centennial Parkway.
Some have questioned why those schools were selected over sites closer to the affected areas. Meadows said efforts to reserve space at Palo Verde and Cimarron-Memorial high schools failed because of scheduling conflicts. He added Sierra Vista is in an area that would see less air traffic under the proposed changes, while Centennial is close to neighborhoods where overhead flights would increase.
If approved, the new routes would be used beginning June 8, Meadows said.
Nevada's congressional delegation is monitoring the issue.
"Homeowners, renters and others impacted by this proposed change must have a say in something that could fundamentally alter a neighborhood's quality of life," Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., who serves on the House Aviation Subcommittee, said via e-mail.
Berkley added she supports expanding McCarran as demand increases, "But any discussion of increased capacity must include not only noise and environmental concerns, but also issues such as overcrowding on runways and the ability of our air traffic controllers to safely handle larger numbers of flights."
T.J. Crawford, a spokesman for Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., said Porter "is extremely concerned" about the FAA's proposed changes and how they would affect local neighborhoods. Porter, who serves with Berkley on the subcommittee, also hopes potential problems can be resolved with public input, Crawford added.
As traveler interest in Las Vegas grows worldwide, the city is also approaching a potential bottleneck in air service.
McCarran's maximum capacity is approximately 55 million arriving and departing passengers per year, Walker has said repeatedly. But realistically, Walker said that total is closer to 53 million because of maintenance, air space congestion and other logistic issues that prevent an airport from operating at 100 percent efficiency year-round.
In March, county commissioners approved a $2.4 billion plan to complete McCarran's infrastructure by 2011, approximately three years earlier than previously anticipated.
Even with new terminals, parking lots and ticketing counters, it cannot grow its passenger capacity further without adding more runways.
Southern Nevada's next option for adding air service is a proposed $4 billion airport in Ivanpah Valley, about 45 miles southwest of downtown Las Vegas.
Tentatively scheduled to open in 2017, it would complement McCarran by allowing 30 million to 35 million more travelers to fly here each year.
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