PHOENIX (AP) — Nearly 100 people strolled through the high school cafeteria throughout the evening, studying colored graphs of flight takeoffs and jotting down comments for officials.
More than three years after they awoke to find window-rattling flights rerouted in an airborne highway above their homes, residents of Phoenix's downtown historic districts said they finally felt the Federal Aviation Administration was listening.
A court victory by Phoenix and neighborhood groups over the FAA last year has prompted the agency to be more responsive to residents as it continues to beat back noise complaints around the United States over the air traffic modernization plan known as "NextGen."
While challenges by residents of Washington's Georgetown neighborhood and other jurisdictions are still being heard in court, people in other affected areas such as Santa Cruz, California, have not sued the agency because they believe their complaints are being considered. Phoenix residents said they appreciated the FAA's current approach.
"They are being transparent now," Opal Wagner, a resident of the vintage Willo district and vice president of the Phoenix Historic Neighborhoods Coalition, said at the first of three FAA public workshops held last week. She and others expressed disappointment that a fourth one wasn't scheduled downtown where most noise complaints originated.
"I think that it's good that they are now dialoguing with the public," Wagner said. "Maybe if they had done this in the beginning, there wouldn't have been a lawsuit."
The historic districts and the city sued the agency after the FAA changed Phoenix Sky Harbor's flight routes in September 2014, bringing airplane noise to public parks and the quiet neighborhoods of charming bungalows, ranch houses and Spanish revival homes, some dating to the 1920s and earlier. About 2,500 households were affected. The noise got so bad for some, they sold their homes and moved.
The FAA started revising flight paths and procedures around the United States in 2014 under the NextGen plan, which uses more precise, satellite-based navigation to save time, increase how many planes airports can handle, and reduce fuel burn and emissions. Noise complaints poured in from Orange County, California, to Washington, D.C., as flights took off at lower altitudes, in narrower paths and on more frequent schedules.
The rollout of the procedures in Phoenix initially represented NextGen's "most problematic implementation," said Chris Oswald, vice president of safety and regulatory affairs with Airports Council International-North America, a trade association that represents commercial airports in the U.S. and Canada. He said he was cautiously optimistic about the FAA's more open approach.
In the Phoenix case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Aug. 29 agreed with the city and historic districts that the FAA was "arbitrary and capricious" in its flight procedure revisions in that area. The court said by leaving people in the dark, the agency made it impossible for the public to express views on the project's potential effects — something the FAA is especially required to do for historic places and parks.
Phoenix residents said they received no forewarning about the flight changes after FAA officials determined they would have no adverse impact and claimed a "categorical exclusion."
Following the court ruling, Phoenix and the FAA on Nov. 30 announced a joint plan aimed at resolving the dispute. Under the plan filed with the appellate court, the FAA agreed to reach out to residents while temporarily resuming the previous departure routes starting April 1.
In a second step, it will develop satellite-based procedures for the original routes, seeking community feedback throughout the process.
"I think we will get a considerable amount of relief with the return of the flights to their previous paths," said Brent Kleinman, president of the Encanto-Palmcroft Historic Preservation Association in central Phoenix.
"But the majority of the work is going to be in the second part of the process," he said, which will decide the final flight paths.
During last week's workshops, Phoenix residents received printed material and mingled with FAA environmental experts and the airspace designers who fashion flight paths.
"This is a format that we've used at other workshops, and it works really well," said Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the FAA's Pacific Division, who attended all three sessions. "The people who have actually designed these procedures are on hand to answer questions."
Phoenix isn't the only place where people say the FAA didn't explain new routes or give them an opportunity to comment.
In the Washington metro area, Georgetown University and neighborhood groups have said the agency left them out of the loop about changes at Ronald Reagan National Airport. In nearby Maryland, residents objected to aircraft noise from both Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
But in Santa Cruz County, residents who initially complained about noise from planes headed to San Francisco said the FAA has been responsive to their worries. A dozen residents chosen by members of Congress in the three affected districts met with FAA representatives weekly throughout much of 2016 to come up with less obtrusive flight approach procedures.
A new approach to the airport that is at least as quiet as it was before NextGen should take effect in August, said Denise Stansfield, founder of the Save our Skies citizen group. Technical problems temporarily increased noise for some residents recently, but once that pathway is permanently adopted, "you're going to see the biggest celebration ever," Stansfield said.
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