Jan. 23–Several suburban cities south of Denver are readying for a potential fight with federal authorities over a plan to change flight paths in the metro area, fearing the new alignments could hammer them with a chorus of unwanted aircraft noise.
“It will put airplanes where aircraft haven’t been before,” said Robert Olislagers, CEO of Centennial Airport, who has retained the services of a law firm that specializes in aircraft noise issues. “By moving things around, people who have never heard noise before will.”
Olislagers said the next phase of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Transportation System initiative, which is being rolled out across the country in an effort to streamline the use of airspace over big cities, could shift hundreds of westbound flights into Centennial Airport to a corridor that would put them over cities such as Littleton and Greenwood Village at low altitude.
He cautioned that the maps from the FAA are preliminary and could change as the latest tweak to the NextGen process — called the Denver Metroplex project — moves forward and public input is gathered.
But Littleton Mayor Debbie Brinkman said she and her colleagues in Greenwood Village, Cherry Hills Village and Centennial need to be ready to counter any change that might reroute air traffic over rooftops in their cities. Centennial Airport is the second-busiest general aviationairport in the United States, with more than 900 landings and takeoffs a day.
“You start getting this all day long and all night long, and you get a diminishing quality of life,” she said. “If the FAA thinks it’s a done deal, it’s not.”
While the planes using Centennial Airport are generally smaller than the jumbo jets flying in and out of Denver International Airport, they aren’t silent. Through November last year, Centennial Airport received noise complaints from 362 households.
FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said the agency plans to publish a draft environmental assessment on the plan in April and then hold public meetings in May, though the FAA warned this week that that process could get pushed out because of the partial federal government shutdown.
The FAA’s NextGen project calls for using satellite navigation to move air traffic more safely and efficiently in and out of airports in the metro area, including DIA, Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport and Centennial Airport. The agency projects the streamlined flight paths, which promise smoother descents than the traditional stair-step approach pilots take today, will save more than half a million gallons of fuel annually at a cost savings of $1.8 million, resulting in a reduction in carbon emissions of more than 5,000 metric tons a year in the metro area.
NextGen was largely implemented in the metro area several years ago when new flight paths for DIA were established. DIA spokeswoman Stacey Stegman said the airport is not taking a position on the Metroplex updates that are scheduled for 2019.
The route change that bothers Olislagers the most is the suggested elimination of the PUFFR route that pilots flying in from the east currently use to access Centennial Airport. The corridor is 10 or so miles wide and disperses the air traffic — and its noise impacts — over a wider area just south of DIA. Preliminary maps for Centennial show the FAA moving Centennial-bound planes to a much narrower track — dubbed BRNKO — farther north before dropping that air traffic into the metro area along the foothills.
Olislagers theorizes the move is being contemplated for one reason only.
“All they are trying to do is push everything out of the way of DIA,” he said.
Rerouting flight paths is no easy feat, with the FAA finding itself the target of multiple lawsuits in the last few years — in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Baltimore — as it has executed its NextGen plan across the country. According to The Arizona Republic, a federal appeals court in 2017 struck down new flight paths the FAA had put in place for Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, ruling that the agency didn’t properly analyze the impact of those changes.
A study of a NextGen flight path near LaGuardia Airport in New York by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, which was released last year, concluded that exposure “to a loud and continuous noise” can have ill health effects — including cardiovascular disease and anxiety — on those living under a flight path.
Centennial Airport has retained Kaplan Kirsch & Rockwell, the law firm that has challenged the FAA’s NextGen system in other cities. But Brinkman wants support from Colorado’s congressional delegation, too.
“One thing we need to do is get our D.C. guys in on this,” she said.
The mayor shared a letter she received this month from freshman Rep. Jason Crow’s office, in which the newly sworn-in congressman said he would “fight for both you and me — and our constituents — to be able to participate in the FAA’s processes and be heard.”
Cherry Hills Village Councilwoman Katy Brown, who sits on the Centennial Airport Community Noise Roundtable, said she doesn’t want to thrust the problem onto any other community. But she said creating a narrow corridor of plane traffic over just a few cities is tantamount to creating a “noise ghetto” in the southern suburbs.
Brown said she understands the FAA’s reasons for wanting to implement the new navigation technology, with its time-saving benefits and reduction in emissions that contribute to climate change.
“Of course that sounds good — but at what expense?” she said.
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