News Article - April 25, 2008

  PHILADELPHIA - A top Federal Aviation Administration official said Friday that planes using Philadelphia International Airport are sometimes directed to fly an alternate route over residential suburbs even when the path is not needed to alleviate congestion. The acknowledgment came after repeated questioning from U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who held a hearing at the National Constitution Center to discuss new takeoff routes. The paths are meant to ease congestion and delays, but have also resulted in a spike in noise complaints in some suburbs.

   Specter grilled Robert A. Sturgell, the FAA's acting administrator, on whether flights were being directed to the alternate takeoff route during times when fewer than 10 planes were waiting to take off. He cited FAA documents that indicated the new routes would only be used during peak hours, at times of the greatest backlog. "We are trying to limit the use to peak demand hours," Sturgell said as Specter pressed him. "Do we stop using them until we get 10 more lined up and then start using them again?"

   In December, the FAA began its first overhaul in decades of the jet routes over New York and Philadelphia , congested airspace that has been blamed for causing delays up and down the East Coast and across the country. The changes allow departing planes to travel in multiple directions, rather than just follow a single path. The agency, which plans to roll out more new routes across the country, says they can reduce delays as much as 20 percent. But opponents say the changes have subjected too many residential areas to the deafening noise of jet engines, and about a dozen communities have filed lawsuits. Sturgell said the agency wanted to use seven alternate takeoff headings in the Philadelphia area, but reduced it to three after meeting with neighborhood groups.

   Community groups say the changes still have led to trouble on the ground, with more flights now going over populated areas. Delaware County residents say they hear the planes at all hours, including the middle of the night. "The FAA consistently fails to take into account the negative impact these flights have on the health and quality of life for people in the county," Jack Whelan, vice chairman of the Delaware County Council, wrote in prepared remarks for the hearing. "The county supports a viable airport to serve the region. But putting more planes over the county is not the answer."

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer