News Article - September 08, 2008

By Tom Belden

  Compared with a year ago, some residents of Delaware and Gloucester Counties are hearing more noise these days from airplanes departing Philadelphia International Airport. That's a result of the Federal Aviation Administration's airspace redesign, part of a long-term effort to reduce flight delays by using the skies in the Philadelphia and New York areas more efficiently. The first phase took effect in December, when air-traffic controllers began sending planes on new takeoff paths over the residential areas close to the airport.

   But in what probably came as a surprise - and a disappointment - to many of those people, the federal government's independent watchdog agency has found that there was more right than wrong with the way the FAA has planned and managed the airspace program. The Government Accountability Office spent months evaluating whether the FAA followed legal requirements in doing an environmental impact statement on the plan; whether it used reasonable standards to measure the effects of additional aircraft noise the plan would cause; and whether the FAA will meet the plan's projected costs and time frames.

   The GAO study was requested by two members of Congress from the region, Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) and Rob Andrews (D., N.J.), along with congressional leaders who chair aviation-related committees. The full report can be found online at The GAO sent its study to the "congressional requesters" on July 31, and following its standard practice, left it up to the politicians to decide when to release it to the rest of us.

   Usually, if a GAO study comes to conclusions the requesters like, they make it public immediately. In this case, Andrews and Sestak issued a news release Aug. 29 - the day before the Labor Day weekend - that sees the results of the GAO's work in a completely different light than I do. The headline on their release reads: "GAO Report Confirms FAA Airspace Redesign Plan Was Flawed," with a subhead: "As suspected, the FAA did not conduct cost-benefit studies before implementation."

   That second sentence above is accurate. The report states that the FAA has not done a cost-benefit analysis that could have provided more information about the impact of the various alternatives it studied as it looked for ways to reduce airspace congestion. Nor, the GAO said, has the FAA developed a detailed implementation plan with a projected timetable, or determined a final cost. As the watchdog agency usually does, it made recommendations to the Department of Transportation for improving certain parts of the process.

   But those remarks are one of the few aspects of what the FAA did over the last decade on airspace redesign that the GAO found lacking. The study says the FAA complied with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act as it's supposed to when it writes an impact statement. Compared with some other GAO reports I've read over the years, this one was pretty tame and can hardly be characterized as critical of the FAA.

   Simply put, I think stating boldly that the GAO found that the "plan was flawed" is misleading. If you read no more than the two cover pages of the GAO report, summarizing the findings, you'll see that the first three quarters is about what the FAA did right. The last quarter details what the redesign plan lacks and how it could be improved. That said, the FAA has been singled out for years as one of the most hidebound and bureaucratic units of the federal government. It's been attacked this year for not watching carefully enough how airlines maintain planes. For years, it's been behind schedule and over budget on introducing new air-traffic control technology. It's in a multi-year battle with the air-traffic controllers union over whether it's jeopardizing safety because of staffing and pay levels at control centers. But this time around, it doesn't look to me like the FAA did too badly.

   The fact is, most people who live near airports knew when they moved there that airplanes can make a lot of noise, especially when they take off. What's different now is that residents under the new flight paths had largely been spared much noise before. In all of the criticism of the airspace plan, it's easy to lose sight of the point: To reduce flight delays at an airport that's one of the region's most robust economic engines and is in the middle of one of the world's most congested air-traffic areas. The FAA plan will take years to fully implement, but this is a good start.

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer