Belle Harbor, the Rockaway community that is still recovering from the crash of American Airlines Flight 587, will soon have empty skies above at least 18 hours a day.
Mandated to ensure the safety and efficiency of air travel, officials of the Federal Aviation Administration promised to forgo some cost-cutting measures on Sunday when they announced that flights departing JFK Airport would soon avoid flying over residential communities on the western end of the Rockaway peninsula.
“This will cost airlines more money and some of them aren’t happy about it,” said Frank Hatfield, manager of the Air Traffic Division of the FAA, of a plan that will add more than two minutes to flights which used to cut across parts of Rockaway to save time and fuel.
As early as February 21st, new Global Positioning Satellite Technology will be put into place to automatically guide planes on a path over the waters of Rockaway Inlet and around Breezy Point instead of over residential areas.
Congressman Anthony Weiner, who arranged the town hall meeting that was held at PS 114 in Belle Harbor, said once the new flight patterns are put into effect, there will be an 80 percent reduction in flights over Rockaway. At the present time, 42 percent of all JFK departures pass over the peninsula.
The new system, which can handle up to 24 flights an hour, will virtually guarantee that no planes departing from JFK will fly over Rockaway between the hours of 8 p.m. to 2 p.m. As a fallback for busier travel times, computers will direct planes over Jacob Riis Park, the peninsula’s only unpopulated area, officials said.
Averaging 350 departing flights per day, JFK, along with LaGuardia and Newark Airports, is part of the most complex and busiest airspace in the world, Hatfield said.
Coming just two months after American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Rockaway killing all 260 people aboard and 5 on the ground, the FAA’s announcement was greeted skeptically by some of the 150 people attending Sunday’s meeting.
Newly-elected Councilman Joseph Addabbo wanted reassurance that flight patterns would be monitored to see if the FAA was sticking to the announced plan. “We don’t want to hear about airlines trying to save time and money.”
Scott Cavagnulo, 31, a 27-year resident of Beach 131st Street where Flight 587 struck and destroyed a block of homes, asked why it took a plane crash to get something done. “Are you just playing politics?”
Weiner said he had written a letter to the FAA about this plan as long ago as October 2000 when he first heard that GPS technology was available.
“First we needed the technology. Then we needed a way to implement it.”
Hatfield said the FAA wanted to put the system in place two months ago; however, the air traffic controllers and pilots must be trained to use the technology.
Gerrie Pomponio, whose husband, Franco, was killed by Flight 587 as he lay sleeping in bed on November 12th, said the planes seem to be flying lower than ever. “Put aside the time and money to make these changes now so that there are no more lives sacrificed.”
Rowina Schwab, a Rockaway resident and member of Community School Board 27, expressed concern about the area’s children and their fear since Flight 587 fell a few blocks from their school.
A number of students from PS 114 lined up to speak to Weiner and FAA officials. They had a petition for President George W. Bush requesting that no more planes fly over Rockaway.
A local mother told the congressman that her two school-age children had not been sleeping or eating well since Flight 587 fell from the sky.
“I can’t make Flight 587 not happen,” Weiner said. “Never let past failures make you think changes aren’t possible.”
However, the FAA’s new plan to reduce flights over part of Rockaway does not apply to planes arriving at JFK or departures of the supersonic Concorde.
“I think the Concorde is on its last legs,” said Weiner, who has introduced legislation to ban the cross-Atlantic jet.
Paul Greco, in charge of Terminal Radar Approach Control for the FAA, said that if the Concorde were to follow the new flight pattern over water, it would interfere with other air patterns.
“The Concorde is a unique aircraft,” he said. “It needs to do a continuous left turn over Rockaway to get out of the way of planes arriving at LaGuardia Airport.”
Greco added that they would try to have the Concorde fly over Riis Park and send it higher than other planes. “We will have it rise as fast as possible.”
Residents of the high-rise apartment buildings along Shore Front Parkway complained that incoming planes are so low and close to their buildings that they fear there will be a crash.
“If a plane hits one of those buildings, hundreds of people will be killed,” one woman said.
An Arverne resident said that planes using JFK’s Runway 22 come right over her house at night.
Hatfield said that there is no plan to re-route arrivals at the airport. There is also no plan to re-route any departing flights except those that have routinely flown over the western portion of Rockaway.
“New York City airports were originally built near water so that flights would mainly go over water, not residential areas,” Weiner said. “When the new flight patterns are put in place, some people who never had planes fly over their heads will see some now. But, those who have borne the brunt of flights will now find some relief.”
Adding that planes must fly into the wind to take off, Weiner said that some neighborhoods will not see any change. “In Lindenwood, people are out of luck.”