South Florida

The FAA wants to merge Florida’s flight paths. Will your neighborhood hear it coming?

A proposed change to the flight paths above South Florida could turn the local airspace into a sky-high Interstate 95, according to critics of the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to consolidate current flight paths into narrower and more concentrated bands of traffic.

Members of the Miami International Airport Noise Abatement Advisory Committee, who heard the FAA’s pitch for its Next Generation Air Transportation System during a recent meeting, expressed concerns about the added noise pollution that more concentrated flight paths could pose to communities not accustomed to such intense air traffic.

The program, known as NextGen, is about halfway through a nationwide rollout but has been met by legal challenges in states like California, Arizona and Maryland. Noise complaints have spiked in communities near airports in the metro areas where the program has been implemented.

Characterized by the agency as an “ongoing transformation of the air traffic control technology and procedures in the United States,” NextGen largely hinges on shifting the National Airspace System from ground-based radar to satellite navigation, and modifying flight paths to make them safer and more fuel efficient.

More direct routes would also save passengers time, the FAA contends. The federal agency said NextGen will save $15.5 million in fuel and 46.1 thousand metric tons in carbon a year.

“NextGen is changing how we see, navigate, and communicate in our nation’s skies,” states a press release published by the FAA. “Think of this transition like moving from paper maps to GPS when you drive your car.”

In planning NextGen’s rollout, the federal agency identified 11 major airspaces it calls metroplexes where one or more commercial airports serve at least one major city. In the South-Central Florida metroplex, NextGen would affect 21 airports — 9 of them in South Florida.

FAA Next Gen nationwide map.jpg
In planning NextGen’s rollout, the federal agency identified 11 major airspaces it calls metroplexes where one or more commercial airports serve at least one major city. In the South-Central Florida metroplex, NextGen would affect 21 airports — 9 of them in South Florida. FAA illustration

“When this happens they’re basically going to be building an I-95 in the sky,” said Brian Gilderman, a member of the MIA Noise Abatement Advisory Committee. “I’ve been told by FAA people that they’re expecting litigation.”

The presentation FAA representatives gave to the committee includes illustrations of South Florida’s current flight paths — several dozen colorful strings scattered across the sky, loosely following preplanned routes. Dark purple and orange mainlines are then superimposed on the maps of South Florida, looking like organized highways with carefully formatted exit ramps.

NextGen map of flight path near airport.jpg
The presentation FAA representatives gave to the committee includes illustrations of South Florida’s current flight paths — several dozen colorful strings scattered across the sky, loosely following preplanned routes. Dark purple and orange mainlines are then superimposed on the maps of South Florida, looking like organized highways with carefully formatted exit ramps. FAA illustration

Gilderman said the current distribution of the flight paths is equitably dispersed, and that clustering them in narrow bands will concentrate noise pollution like sunshine through a magnifying glass.

“If you live under or near that purple route, you’re going to start noticing those planes,” he said. “It’s going to be nonstop.”

He predicts concerned residents in the area will follow the lead set by those from communities in Arizona, Maryland and California where NextGen flight paths have been challenged.

In Maryland, the state’s attorney general filed a petition in June with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit challenging new flight paths at Reagan National Airport and petitioned the FAA to review changes made to those at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. That case is pending, according to The Washington Post.

Last year, a three-judge appeals panel in the D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of Phoenix residents, ordering the FAA to revise flight paths at Sky Harbor International Airport, according to The Post.

In January, the FAA reached a tentative settlement to adjust flights out of John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California, after being sued by the governments of Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Orange County, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Satellite-based routes have resulted in flights becoming more concentrated because of the more precise nature of the navigation. This has generated concerns in some communities about persistent noise in specific locations,” an FAA spokeswoman told the Miami Herald in a statement. “Previously, flights were more spread out because aircraft were using less precise navigation systems.”

She said satellite-based paths are generally “not lower,” but do concentrate air traffic in a “narrower band than conventional procedures.”

As for noise concerns, the FAA said it would conduct an environmental review of the program’s Florida launch in the spring of 2019. Public input will be allowed during the environmental review period as well. The agency said it continues to work with individual communities to explore possible solutions to their noise complaints, but that a growth in flight operations and increased demand have also contributed to noise concerns.

NextGen map of flight path 1.jpg
“NextGen is changing how we see, navigate, and communicate in our nation’s skies,” states a press release published by the FAA. “Think of this transition like moving from paper maps to GPS when you drive your car.” FAA illustration

It is too early to tell if noise levels in South Florida would increase under the NextGen plan, the agency said.

“The environmental review of the proposed new procedures will identify whether aircraft noise levels would change,” the spokeswoman said. “We anticipate beginning the environmental review of the proposed procedures in spring 2019. We will offer the public the opportunity to comment on the proposals again during the environmental review, and we will review all public comments before making a final environmental determination on the procedures in 2020. We anticipate that new procedures will be available for use in 2021.”

She said the FAA would publicize the dates and locations of public meetings pertaining to NextGen “as soon as they are finalized.”

Lester Sola, the director and chief executive officer of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, said his department and the FAA have met “over the past two years” to discuss the proposal. Recently, they have worked to develop an “extensive schedule of outreach workshops with the community prior to any implementation by the FAA.”

“The FAA’s environmental assessment process, scheduled to begin in 2019, is designed to identify and address any concerns regarding noise,” Sola said in a statement to the Herald. “It is therefore too early in the process to evaluate what impact, if any, the program could have on noise levels.”

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said “it’s too early to know what effects would be faced, but we will certainly be monitoring any impacts.”

NextGen’s promises to save on fuel and travel time, however, would “be a win-win for our community,” he said.

“As it stands, the FAA’s Metroplex program has the potential to save energy, which is part of our County’s resiliency efforts to combat climate change,” Gimenez said.

Martin Vassolo covers the politics and government of Miami Beach for the Miami Herald. He began working for the Herald in January 2018 after attending the University of Florida, where he served as the editor-in-chief of The Independent Florida Alligator. Previously, he was a general assignment reporter on the Herald’s metro desk and a political reporting intern.
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