Delco residents: FAA plan is full of hot air|
Philadelphia International Airport is going to get bigger and the flight paths of the jets that use its runways are going to change. Itís not going to happen for some time, and exactly what happens will be put up for public debate before it happens, FAA officials said. But something is going to happen. The FAA toured the county last year, and is putting on another tour this year, to let residents see what alternatives are being considered to expand the airportís capacity and maximize its efficiency. Passenger traffic increased 10 percent in 2005, with a record 31.5 million passengers, making it the 25th busiest airport in the world. Currently, the Runway 17-35 expansion project is under way. Route 291 has been shut down and work will soon begin on making the runway long enough to support the big jets. Prior to the expansion, 17-35 was being used primarily for commuter planes. The FAA informational hearings last year proposed a few alternative expansion options being considered at the airport. The same proposals were shown again Wednesday night at the Tinicum School in Essington. "We said we would be back and we came back," FAA spokesman Jim Peters said. A few dozen residents attended the meeting, where large easels of aerial photographs and charts were displayed in a circle around the school gymnasium. Much of the crowd seemed unhappy with expanding the airport at all. Some were angry no new information was being offered. A few just wanted the work to get started. "My wife and I fly several times a year and my kids fly weekly," said Bill Taylor of Middletown. "I want the airport to be more efficient." Taylor said the airspace redesign, which will change the flight paths of jets, most likely bringing a steady parade of airliners over Delaware County, is something he is against. But the airport expansion is something he is for. Studying an aerial photograph of the airport, Taylor said he saw no reason why the jets couldnít fly over the John Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, an area protected by federal environmental laws and replete with the hazards of migratory birds, which have been known to interfere with jet engines. But if itís just a matter of flying closer to the "birds and turtles," Taylor said itís better than the alternatives. "Iíd rather distract the sleep of the birds and turtles, than the sleep of Tinicum residents," Taylor said. Delaware County Council Chairman Andrew Reilly did not consider the sleeping rhythms of either creature to be of import. What he did find interesting was the fact that the FAA held a presentation without presenting anything new, and is bent on expanding an airport that, according to him, doesnít need expanding. "The airspace redesign will cut the delays by 3.2 percent," he said. "And Iíll tell you another thing. More than 70 percent of the airportís delays are weather-related. And 12 percent are equipment-related." Asked for his source, Reilly said he got the numbers from the "county expert." The director of aviation at the airport said in May that in 2005 the airport was "the most delayed in the country," and that if nothing was done to fix the congestion problem delay times will be at 30 minutes by 2010. The FAA is considering three alternatives to alleviate this congestion, two of which result in four parallel runways where now there are only two, and which eliminate Runway 17-35, the one presently being extended; and one which has 17-35 intersecting one of the four parallel runways. In all cases, the massive UPS terminal, a large obstacle for engineers trying to maximize space at the airport, is gone. The shipping company has given no indication it is willing to give up its valuable space at the airport. So without details on how the planes will fly in and out of the airport, or how UPS will disappear, the residents who attended the presentation did a lot of grumbling as they toured the circle of easels. Carolann Straubinger of Havertown grumbled the loudest. "Itís like theyíre building a skyscraper and they have the basement done, but they donít know what the top is going to look like," Straubinger said. U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, held a public hearing Wednesday in Ridley Township on the FAAís airspace redesign proposal. Mica and FAA project manager Steve Kelley heard objections from residents that will be affected by additional planes flying at lower altitudes over their neighborhoods. "Minor mitigation simply wonít do it for us," said Reilly, who wants departing plans to remain over the Delaware River until theyíve reached an altitude of at least 3,000 feet. The county is prepared to go to court to stop the FAA if it does not modify the airspace redesign, Reilly said. Daily Times reporter William Bender contributed to this report.