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Aircraft over-flights need alternative approach

-- Guest Commentary --

January 4, 2012
By Larry Kiker , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

Many have read about and heard the planes crossing over Fort Myers Beach. Many of the planes are close enough and loud enough to disrupt conversations if you happen to be residing directly below them. Is it really a problem? Is anyone working on it? Is there a solution?

The simplest answer is yes to all three. Jumping to the end, short-term it would be best if the planes that are arriving can have the option of using alternative procedures flying over the Back Bays east of Fort Myers Beach, or at least increase their minimum height level. Eventually, re-routing them to completely avoid our Beach all together is ideal. It's going to take some time but work has been going on for years now. It takes effective communication between the communities, the Lee County Port Authority and the final decision maker, the Federal Aviation Administration.

The rest of this is pretty boring, feathered with technical terminology that exceeds the limits of my working knowledge. Therefore, you will read a layman's version of what is going on behind the scenes to make this all happen. First of all, you should know that you have been represented very well by a local group that do understand the more technical terminology to make our case, and the Lee County Port Authority is working hard on this effort. The end goal is to affect future FAA decisions.

This really started many years ago and gradually it became worse with the expansion of travel to this area along with decisions that have been made by the FAA for safety reasons. One thing that you have to always remember, there is an airport here, and it's not going to move. Additionally, without air traffic our economy will suffer.

Fortunately, there has been a group of Beach folks that have worked very hard on this problem for the past three years, familiarizing themselves and soliciting assistance from adjoining communities and meeting with the Port Authority for Lee County and directly with the FAA. Their efforts have not gone unnoticed and, certainly, we have been well represented and to them we owe our appreciation.

These same folks presented to the council with a request for the Town to take a formal, stronger role in that participation; this included the submission of a Resolution to be considered. That subject is on the Jan. 3, 2012 meeting and will be voted on at that time.

Town Manager Terry Stewart and I were asked by Council to act as liaison to Lee County and any other organizations when necessary. Last week, we met with Director of Lee County Port Authority Bob Ball and his staff. Before the meeting we had sent a copy of the proposed resolution that the council will be discussing to discuss their observations and reaction. What we got was a very positive reaction and response with some additional information. This, in part, is what we were able to learn.

Trying to keep it simple, the Port Authority is responsible for the ground and the FAA has control of the air. As it turns out there is a lot of negotiating going on between these two groups, and Mr. Ball takes his role as our representative very seriously. As a little background, the US Department of Transportation Federal Aviation Administration is constantly revising where planes fly to more safely and more efficiently route aircraft to US airports. As part of this nationwide initiative, in 2008, the FAA implemented the Florida West Coast Airspace Redesign. Prior to FLOWCAR, all aircraft arriving the Southwest Florida International Airport would come down the west coast. After FLOWCAR, planes coming from airports west of Atlanta are directed by the FAA to come down the west coast, and planes coming from airports east of Atlanta are directed by the FAA to come down the center of the state (unless weather or other safety reasons are involved). That means that aircraft coming over Fort Myers Beach have to merge two approaching streams of aircraft and the separation requirements for this merging traffic mean aircraft could be lower over our Town than we have seen in years past. Weather and local over-flight traffic going to Page Field, Naples, Venice, Punta Gorda as well as other over-flight traffic going to Miami, Tampa or just flying over our state, also affect aircraft separation requirements for safety reasons. And, when you raise the altitude of one aircraft, in order to keep safe separation, you have to raise the altitude of all the other aircraft that may fly above it.

The decision to change the flight patterns happened in 2008, which is why it appears that we suddenly 'discovered' this problem in recent years. This becomes more than 3 dimensional; I would liken it more like a Rubik's cube. If you shift a path left to right you may be increasing or decreasing the FAA workload of Tampa versus Miami. If you shift the heights as little as 1,000 feet up or down it has the same impact. If you increase the standards of the lowest allowed flights, then all the other flight patterns have to be increased the same.

Additionally, the next variable is a regulated standard with a three-degree approach that FAA governs safety, fuel efficiency and sound reduction (which calculates to approximately 2,600 feet above our island). This range may look like an ice cream cone lying on its side that further limits what options are feasible.

The Lee County Board of Port Commissioners has hired a consultant to conduct an airport noise study. The study is about 50 percent complete and is looking at a number of options to present to the FAA in order to try and help all southwest Florida communities, including Fort Myers Beach. The technical issues I just mentioned are presented in a myriad of computer chart printouts and an enormous amount of data. These are all available and presented when you attend the noise study public meetings the Port Authority sponsors, the next one is scheduled Spring of 2012. Watch for it during the March time frame.

The next challenge is a difficult one to tackle as well. According to the FAA we have no problem with noise -end of story. That makes the Port Authority representation on behalf of the surrounding communities even more difficult. There are certain standards that have been set by FAA that reflects the level of noise that impacts property owners adjacent to airports; how many houses are directly underneath the approach of a plane subjected to a certain sound level that is recognized as a noise nuisance.

The chart we saw shows that there are ZERO residents within the noise level prescribed by the FAA as "non-compatible" as compared to Miami, which has 42,507 people directly living adjacent to the airport with significant sound levels, as example. That means again that the FAA considers there is no noise level problem that exists anywhere in Lee County.

With all this said, the FAA does recognize that even though Fort Myers Beach does not technically have a "noise" problem by their federal standards, we do have an aircraft over-flight problem that is affecting our quality of life. To that end, FAA representatives (including the US Southern Regional Administrator) have met with Port Authority and area representatives several times to try and address the issues of our Town. And, we hear from the Port Authority staff that the FAA is working with specific airlines to create new flight procedures that could be used to direct aircraft over the Back Bay, thereby reducing the number of aircraft flying directly over Fort Myers Beach. This is the best news we've heard in a long time and the best solution for us. We greatly appreciate the time and effort the FAA is taking to work on such important procedures.

So here is the net of it. How do we work with the Port Authority and the FAA to reduce the number and increase the altitude of aircraft flying over Fort Myers Beach?

First of all, we may represent only a percentage of complaints to Lee County, but it is 100 percent to us. In agreement, they have numerous graphs and data that they have gathered in yet another study. They have computer-generated graphs of complaints, flight paths, etc. They are not starving for information.

They are spending more than $700,000 to produce this study that establishes all the information that they can sift through to support what they think is a problem that DOES exist and that there may be solutions too. Many of those possible solutions are covered in the Resolution that the Council may adopt.

They consider other variables such as not moving the problem over another community, not exceeding the three percent approach guidelines, reducing the traffic over our island while handling more flights each year while receiving FAA approval. Not a trivial pursuit.

The study should help get FAA approval of noise contours in the spring. It is important that people of this community attend the final public meeting, which is being held on Fort Myers Beach for the purposes of the study. Recommendations go forward to the FAA in the summer of 2012. FAA final approval/implementation is tentatively projected in 2013.

So what does this mean? Short-term, if we can get some of the flights to use an alternate approach overflying the Back Bay rather than directly over the Beach, it would greatly reduce the noise on our community. And, if we can get all flights to a minimal level of 3,000 feet, it would be a tremendous help and may actually be do-able, according to Mr. Ball. This would almost double the height of some flights that are approaching the airport that are plaguing our island. Long-term, there are other options that are being studied by the Port Authority's noise consultant that will be presented to the public in the spring.

We should all thank the efforts of those that have been working tirelessly on this subject for the Town, thanks to the FAA for working on possible airspace solutions in advance of the noise study completion in an effort to help our situation sooner rather than later, and a special thanks to Bob Ball and his staff that seem to have it all covered. They continue to solicit the input of anyone that wishes to make a complaint or have a suggestion. A brief update will be forthcoming when it is appropriate. Most of all, if you do have a concern, please watch for and plan to go to the meeting being held on Fort Myers Beach.



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