Championing their constituents’ gripes about airplane noise over their homes, elected officials from Northeast Queens headed down to Washington, DC last Wednesday to convince the Federal Aviation Administration that its environmental review process was insufficient when it changed the procedures for planes departing from LaGuardia Airport last year.
State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside), and Reps. Grace Meng (D-Bayside) and Steve Israel (D-Melville) agreed with federal and regional FAA representatives to meet again with lawyers and technical experts to discuss the legal arguments over implementing new flight paths without a cumulative environmental impact study. The first meeting is not scheduled yet.
“The FAA was open to this,” Avella said. “They’re beginning to realize that we’re not going to go away.”
Community complaints focus on new flight path procedures that route planes from LaGuardia Airport’s Runway 13 over Northeast Queens. The FAA simultaneously introduced two programs, Airspace Redesign, which rearranged flight paths to reduce delays, and NextGen, the use of navigational technology, which concentrates flight paths to increase capacity and fuel efficiency.
“The team will not review the procedure or other flight path changes,” the FAA said in a statement. “As part of the review, the FAA will explain the environmental process it followed to determine that the new procedure would not create significant environmental impacts. The FAA categorically excluded the procedure from further environmental review in accordance with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. During the review, the FAA will share the data it used in the analysis, discuss the results, and answer questions about the departure procedure.”
According to the Rebecca Bratspies, a CUNY Law School professor and the director of the CUNY Center of Urban Environmental Reform, the FAA’s decision to issue a categorical exclusion, known as CATEX, rather than do a full environmental impact study, is the root of the controversy.
“My hope is that the FAA is going to reconsider the decision to approve the CATEX,” Bratspies said. “That’s the best outcome.”
Bratspies said that the FAA’s willingness to create the new committee “shows that the FAA is listening carefully.”
The way the process is likely to work, according to Bratspies, is that the FAA committee will go through their legal and factual decisions step-by-step and community representatives will discuss the points where they disagree.
“It depends how the conversation goes,” Bratspies said. “Ideally, the FAA says ‘Gosh you’re right,’ and revisits the decision to issue a CATEX and then says ‘This is how we can use this technology without this impact on the community.’ The worst-case scenario is that they do nothing, at which point the community looks at their legal options. There is also a whole range of possibilities in the middle.”
“At the meeting, the FAA, like they always do, said, ‘We did everything we were supposed to do.’ I think it’s ridiculous,” Braunstein said.
While Avella and Braunstein both said the meeting was productive, they said that it was only a small step in a long uphill battle, which may include a lawsuit.
“This is the FAA, a big, powerful, federal agency,” Braunstein said. “We’re up against a giant here. It will be difficult raising money, but there is definitely enough will in Northeast Queens that something needs to be done.”
According to Janet McEneany, the president of Queens Quiet Skies, an organization dedicated to reducing airplane noise, the group already has several hundred members and is “growing exponentially.”
Braunstein said the outcome of the committee meeting is likely to influence the community’s decision on whether or not to proceed with litigation.
Bratspies said that if the community were to file a lawsuit, it would likely get past the “motion to dismiss” stage.
“I think the reason the FAA is creating this process is because the community has a pretty good case,” Bratspies said.
However, McEneany said she doesn’t think the movement is heading toward a lawsuit and that she hopes the committee will serve as a precursor to the community aviation roundtable for all of Queens, which the FAA agreed to form. Avella’s task force is still ironing out the final details of the bylaws for the roundtable.
“We’re offering the FAA, Port Authority and community a collaborative model. We want to try to have all stakeholders heard and frame collaborative solutions. Litigation is not always the winning solution,” McEneany said.
Meanwhile, the community is soliciting help from U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY). Although local elected officials and community members have lambasted the pair for not aiding them in challenging the FAA, spokespeople for the senators noted their efforts, thus far.
“Last year, Senator Gillibrand wrote to the FAA and Port Authority, urging those agencies to do more to address aircraft noise affecting residents of Queens and Nassau County. She will continue urging the FAA to be responsive to the concerns of communities afflicted with excessive noise from air traffic,” Gillibrand’s spokeswoman Angie Hu wrote in a statement.
“Senator Schumer has been closely monitoring the issue of aircraft noise and has been working as a liaison between constituents and the FAA. At the senator’s request, the Port Authority and the FAA created a uniform phone number where residents can log aircraft complaints. The senator will continue to advocate on behalf of his constituents and supports the idea of a community roundtable to address aircraft noise concerns,” Marisa Kaufman, a spokeswoman for Schumer, wrote in a statement.