Voluntary recommendation action regarding an ongoing airport noise and land use study by the Lee County Port Authority and the Federal Aviation Administration is taking place at Southwest Florida International Airport, much to the delight of Town officials.
Beach Mayor Alan Mandel and Town Manager Terry Stewart met with local port authority and FAA officials at the airport last week and discovered that certain airline companies are voluntary applying recommendations created by consultants, such as keeping incoming aircraft at or above 3,000 feet over Estero Island and trying different flight patterns over the Back Bay instead of incorporating arrival procedures over the island.
"Companies such as Delta, JetBlue, Southwest Airlines and US Airways have voluntarily placed equipment or made adjustments to equipment on their planes that will allow the pilots to do what is being recommended in the report such as flying in along the Back Bay and not over the island," said Mandel. "That is totally voluntary on the part of the pilot at this point. There are things that the tower is working on that will eventually allow the controller to do that."
Mandel requested a meeting with airport officials after listening to public comment at a recent meeting from Beach resident Tom Merrill and receiving phone calls from other concerned residents questioning the progress of the Federal Aviation Regulation Part 150 study. The two Town officials met with LCPA Deputy Executive Director for Development Mark Fisher, Project Coordinator Chad Rosenstein and Planner Joshua Philpott as well as RSW Control Tower officials Jim Dickinson and Ken Millan of the FAA.
Rosenstein confirmed the meeting went well. He stated the airport officials explained the proposed recommendations and how some of them will have a positive impact on Fort Myers Beach. He believes there are more than four airline companies currently implementing the procedure.
"We highlighted those points and told them the local FAA is currently working on the recommendations before the study is approved," he said. "Southwest Airlines spearheaded the procedure."
The local Board of Port Commissioners held a public hearing about the proposed recommendations back in January. After approval, the recommendations were sent to the FAA's regional office in Atlanta where they are currently being reviewed. Upon reviewal completion, the document will be sent to the FAA's national office in Washington D.C. for yet another reviewal.
"The FAA corporate headquarters issues their final determination on the noise study. That could take another six months," said Rosenstein.
The Town officials learned about certain issues pertaining to flight patterns, such as fuel efficiency determinations and that the flight path is usually programmed before the plane takes off from its departing point.
"Pilots won't deviate from that," said Mandel. "That is why the Back Bay approach may become part of a procedure and become programmed that way more regularly. Until this hopefully becomes more of a procedure, the voluntary efforts by the tower and pilot will depend on the flight queue."
After viewing a chart, Mandel pointed out that there are "significantly less" flights coming over the Estero Island at low altitude from a year ago.
"The air traffic controllers during visual conditions are telling the pilots to maintain at 3,000 feet until crossing the Beach," said Rosenstein. "The RNAV Visual Optimized Profile Descent procedure has been out there for a bout a year now. It's what the FAA calls a special procedure. In order for an airline to follow that procedure, they have to contact the FAA and tell them they would like to begin flying the procedure, and the FAA will review the airline's guidelines to make sure they can fly that procedure and that their pilots are qualified to do it. Once the pilots get into the Fort Myers area, they make the request to use that procedure. If the air traffic controllers are able to sequence the other aircraft with the one requesting the RNAV visual procedure, they will allow that to happen. Most of the time they are able to accommodate that request."
Besides keeping aircraft at 3,000 feet over Fort Myers Beach and use of RNAV descent procedures, other proposed recommendations impacting FMB include increasing altitude of early morning flights to box carriers such as FedEx and UPS to increase, changing Runway 24 to preferred preferred arrival direction to the southwest rather than northeast during the night time hours to limit nighttime flights over Beach and publish Charted Visual Approach to Runway 6 from the north and south.
"The Charted Visual procedure that is being developed will be an overlay, so it will be the same flight path as the RNAV visual and that keeps the aircraft in the Back Bay," said Rosenstein. "Once that is developed and implemented, the air traffic controllers will be able to tell pilots during visual conditions to fly the charted visual procedure, and that will keep more aircraft from flying over the Beach."
Mandel and Stewart thanked Dickinson for his effort as manager of the FAA tower in regards to held meetings with the unionized air traffic controllers in "laying out what the objectives are and being able to get approval to keep aircraft at 3,000 feet" over Fort Myers Beach.
"It's a very nice effort by the airport authority working with the tower and tower management working with their employees in bringing this about," said Mandel. "I think that's a very positive step. Of course, safety is always the first concern."
"We were extremely pleased with their willingness to meet with us and explain all of this to us. The key thing is that they are working with us, and they have done things on a voluntary basis at this point to help matters. I think as this study goes on, we will have some decisions made by the FAA in Washington DC."