House approves language to halt FAA changes to Sky Harbor flight paths

FAA changes to flight paths at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport have led to noise complaints from airport neighbors. Congress and the city of Phoenix both are moving to block or reverse FAA actions. (Photo courtesy Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport)

WASHINGTON – The House gave preliminary approval Thursday to a proposal that would stop the Federal Aviation Administration from making further changes to flight patterns at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

The language was approved without debate as an amendment an appropriations bill to fund transportation, housing and other agencies for fiscal 2016.

The amendment, offered by Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Phoenix, says simply that “none of these funds … may be used by the Federal Aviation Administration to redesign the Phoenix Metroplex regional airspace.”

That redesign started in September and has already resulted in planes being routed over densely populated communities near the airport, sparking thousands of noise complaints from residents.

“The FAA cannot just run roughshod over the citizens of Phoenix,” Gallego said of the reason for his amendment.

The House action comes just three days after the city of Phoenix said it would sue the FAA, a move that Mayor Greg Stanton said the city was forced to make after eight months of pleading with the agency went unaddressed.

“Unfortunately, they have not really engaged in any meaningful changes that would give relief to the people of Phoenix, that’s why we felt it was necessary to file the litigation,” Stanton said Thursday.

A spokesman for the FAA declined to comment on the House amendment, saying in an email Thursday that the agency will not “comment on pending legislation.”

In a letter to city officials Monday, however, the agency outlined short-term solutions to the noise problem it said it would take and pledged to investigate longer-term solutions.

The FAA is doing the redesign as part of a national transition away from ground-based navigation and toward a satellite-based system.

But local and federal lawmakers said the agency has implemented those changes without seeking public input first.

“I respect them. I want them to be able to successfully implement their new procedure,” Stanton said of the new navigation system. “But they shouldn’t make changes that have such a negative consequence without at least, you know, having public meetings.

“That’s just wrong,” he said.

Phoenix City Councilwoman Kate Gallego said the FAA was trying to “move a highway in the sky without talking to the people on the ground.”

“We’ve spent years doing land-use planning and millions of dollars to buy out homes and other properties in areas where the flight path used to be,” said Gallego, who husband is the congressman. “We have a lot of residents who are having trouble sleeping at night, or whose businesses are disrupted by the flight path.”

Ruben Gallego said on the House floor that the changes had been made by “out-of-touch bureaucrats,” a charge echoed by an angry Rep. David Schweikert, R-Fountain Hills.

“When it becomes one of the biggest issues of all of our congressional offices, they’re arrogant, they don’t return calls,” Schweikert said of the Arizona delegation’s dealings with FAA officials. “We point out the fact that they’re violating last year’s law, and they just grin at you and then just walk out of the meeting with this sort of arrogant vanity.”

The amendment passed on a voice vote. The full appropriations bill is expected to come up for a final vote next week, after a series of other, more contentious, amendments are considered.

Kate Gallego said it “has the potential to create problems all around the Valley and throughout Arizona.”

“We need to ensure that the FAA conducts appropriate community outreach, scoping and involvement at the beginning of the project, and not after they’ve already decided what they want to do,” she said.