Portland Maine Airport – The Portland International Jetport Noise Advisory Committee held its first-ever public information session Thursday, at South Portland City Hall, and noise is exactly what they got.
About 20 area residents attended the session, arranged by committee member and South Portland City Councilor Alan Livingston. The object, to open a dialogue with the pubic, was prefaced with presentations by Jetport Director Paul Bradbury and Security and Communications Manager Jennifer Dunfee.
Attendees sat quietly through Powerpoint slides on the Jetport’s $75 million expansion (the new terminals open Oct. 2), its carrier mix (US Airways accounts for 29.7 percent of all flights), passengers served (1.69 million in 2010, down from a high of 1.76 million in 2008) and its economic impact ($868 million, annually, supporting 11,591 jobs).
But what they really wanted to know was when and how the Jetport proposed to reduce the thundering noise some area residents must endure on a daily basis. The answer the residents received – perhaps as long as five years – did not sit well with those that now live along the Jetport’s flight path.
“It really makes by house rumble,” said Richard Armstrong.
“We’re getting crop dusted on a daily basis,” said Bill Duffy.
“It’s just a tailpipe of jet exhaust into South Portland,” said Peter Frankwicz.
As Bradbury explained it, the Jetport has a solution that will divert more than 90 percent of all air traffic that now passes over the South Portland peninsula. The only problem, he said, is the Jetport can’t implement the fix without a mother-may-I from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
According to Bradbury, permission was first sought almost two years ago for a radio navigation system that would guide pilots down the Fore River to a GPS unit (to be dubbed “MAINA”) placed on Hog Island Ledge. That would make it possible for all commercial airliners to use what’s called the “harbor-view approach” now in use only during the day, under optimal weather conditions, and only for landings. That route would ensure that takeoffs, the noisiest plane activity, avoid the city entirely.
“Sounds great, doesn’t it?” asked Bradbury. “It looks brilliant. We all think it’s brilliant. Unfortunately, it doesn’t exist yet.”
And, if those at the meeting thought little of the two-year wait, they were even less mollified by Bradbury’s prediction of how much longer the FAA might take to enact new procedures at the Portland Jetport.
“I’m confident it will happen within five years,” he said, eliciting an audible groan from the audience.
Although Bradbury began his talk by praising the feds for putting control of all air travel under a single administration – “that’s why it’s the safest way to travel,” he said – it fell to others to explain what else can be wrought of central control.
“Once you leave the local district and get bounced into the Washington bureaucracy, they can make Congress look fast-moving and nimble,” said Edward Suslovic , the committee’s chairman and a Portland City Councilor whose district includes the Jetport.
Bradbury pointed out that wind direction determines how planes approach and depart the Jetport. Because they must take off and land into the wind, that means 97.3 percent of all flights use runways 11 and 29, which are orientated on an east-west axis. And, although Dunfee said the Jetport tries to send planes to the west whenever possible, a good portion of the time conditions dictate that they pass directly over South Portland neighborhoods, like Knigtville, Mill Creek and Willard Square.
Pilots are instructed to “fan out,” said Dunfee, meaning some bank right or left almost as soon as they hit altitude, which lowers the number of flights that pass directly over the city. However, while that reduces the number of flights taking off over the peninsula, it also spreads the annoyance factor around.
“This is not what we want to do going forward,” she said, noting that with the radio navigation system in place, pilots could fly the S-shaped pattern down the river and out over Casco Bay through a cloud cover as low as 600 feet.
“We all agree, if you are woken up just once [by a departing place], that’s a problem,” said Suslovic. “But we can’t set policy. The FAA has reserved that for themselves.”
Bradbury said all commercial aircraft in use today has the GPS guidance equipment needed to take advantage of radio navigation flight path. The Jetport is simply waiting on the FAA to adopt a procedure and put it out to industry comment, he said.
Suslovic said the noise committee has agreed to enlist help from Maine’s congressional delegation, should the FAA prove unresponsive. However, even though the process was begun almost two years ago, the committee does not yet felt the need to employ what he called “the nuclear option.”
“Believe me, we are all impatient,” said Suslovic, “but the FAA is looking at it. We feel that they are making progress.
“I absolutely agree that the biggest noise impact is on South Portland, and that’s why our top priority as a committee has been to work on this RNAV route,” said Suslovic. “Once we get this approved and implemented, I think the folks in South Portland will see a marked difference.”
“I think it’s sad that it’s been two years that you’ve all been working so hard and so little seems to have happened,” said Diane Armstrong.
Sam Frantoni pressed Bradbury repeatedly on how long it should take to gain FAA approval of the radio navigation path, garnering little more than a “great question.”
“It’s an 18-step process, ” said Durfee “and we’re in about step three or four at this point.”
Frantoni asked for detail on each of the 18 steps, as well as a standard timeframe under which each is usually accomplished. That drew more generalizations from Bradbury.
“There is a lot of technology and mapping that goes into this,” he said. “There’s safety programming and analysis, and then the airlines get to do the same rigorous analysis.”
Bradbury added that the FAA has been sent back to the drawing board once already, after they returned with a proposed radion navigation route that “clipped” South Portland at Bug Light.
“So, it’s not like we said go and they waited two years,” he said.
But, for some in the crowd, the attempt to divert flights from the city was not only about noise.
“It’s also a health issue,” said Duffy. “There are days when I walk out of my house and it feels like I’m on the tarmac of the airport, with the reeking fumes.”
Frankwicz agreed, referencing a February 2010 health impact assessment of the Santa Monica airport prepared by UCLA.
“I am very concerned,” he said. “It’s a very alarming study talking about urban airport emissions that lead to carcinogenic risks, exposures to ultra-fine particles, which lead to inflammation of airway passages, and exposure to hydro-carbons, which are lowering IQ scores in children.
“Runway 11 goes directly over at least three or four schools,” said Frankwicz. “We are exposing our children to these health risks. And then the noise results in higher levels of physiological distress, impaired reading comprehension and memory among children.”
“I feel like I’m complaining to the wrong people,” said Duffy, who, like many in the audience, did not seem content to wait five years to be free from overflights.
“If it seems like it’s really grinding to a halt, at what point will you get in touch with our senators?” he asked.
“As long as we are making forward progress we do not want to pull the heavy hand of our congressional delegation,” answered Suslovic, “because, in certain circumstances, that can put you in limbo, as in, ‘We’ll show them.’”
But then, Suslovic seemed to indicate how, for every winner of a bureaucratic decision, there can also be losers. After all, while jets currently fan out when leaving the jetport to mitigate the impact on any one neighborhood, the projected flightpaths shown by Dunfee showed virtually every departing flight on the proposed path taking a hard right at Hog Light and flying directly over Peaks Island.
And, if continual Peaks Island flyovers might still represent “the greatest gain for the greatest number of people,” Suslovic, whether he meant to or not, seemed to draw a closer parallel with the Portland Jetport’s current status with the FAA. After all, who oils the wheel that squeaks least?
“I expect that I’ll be getting a lot more calls from Peaks Island once we implemented this,” he said. “But it’s more of a seasonal community, so in the winter there are fewer people who are going to be impacted and in the summer, well, a lot of those people don’t vote.”
Bradbury said the radio navigation process will be on the agenda for the next meeting of the noise advisory committee. That gathering kicks off at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 18, at the Jetport.
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