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News Journal

Airport plans would change patterns
One alternative would send more air traffic over Del., another would route planes over Pa.

Staff reporter

One of the two expansion plans announced recently by the Federal Aviation Administration for Philadelphia International Airport could mean an end to complaints about airplane noise in parts of Brandywine Hundred. The other plan could make the noise twice as bad, according to aviation experts. The first plan, the Parallel Concept, would add a fifth runway at the airport, roughly parallel to the Delaware River, and expand two of the existing runways. The second plan, the Diagonal Concept, would virtually eliminate all the existing runways and demolish most of the existing terminal, replacing them with four new parallel runways and new terminals. The new configuration would be similar to those at major airports in Atlanta and Los Angeles.  
At least one aviation expert and local legislators said they think the Parallel Concept is likely to be approved because it appears to be the cheaper of the two plans. Brandywine Hundred residents and local legislators have long been frustrated with noise from Philadelphia-bound airplanes. But last month, some grew more annoyed when the FAA refused to answer questions about how plans to increase capacity at the Philadelphia airport would affect Delaware. FAA Project Manager James Byers said the details have not been worked out, so he couldn't comment. Byers and other FAA officials said the expansion would alleviate delays and allow for future growth of air travel at the airport. But the plans are at the very start of a process that could last 20 years. He said the public and residents in Delaware would have plenty of time to comment as various studies of the plan move forward.

Local officials, however, said they think now is the time to get involved before the FAA makes a decision. State Rep. Robert J. Valihura Jr., R-Edenridge, said Delaware has not been included in past decisions about the airport, and the study area for the expansion project does not include the state. Valihura said the only way local residents will get their voices heard by the FAA will be through their elected representatives in Washington. Delaware's congressional delegation, senators Joe Biden and Tom Carper, both Democrats, and Rep. Mike Castle, a Republican, recently wrote to the FAA requesting that Delaware be included in the study area for the expansion project.

Retired Marine aviator Chuck Landry and commercial airline pilot Dan Gutierrez, both Brandywine Hundred residents, said the Parallel Concept plan that would add a fifth runway could increase airplane noise over parts of New Castle County because planes would follow the same course as they currently do and because of the expansion, twice as many planes could land at the same time. The pilots said the Diagonal Concept plan that would eliminate most of the existing terminal and runways in favor of new ones would mean the approach path for the airport would move several miles north, from over Arden and Brandywine Hundred to over Concordville, Pa., eliminating noise problems in Delaware and moving them into Pennsylvania.

But Landry said he did not think that plan would be selected because it would cost far more because of the construction required. The FAA has not offered cost estimates on either plan. Airplane noise over Brandywine Hundred occurs only when the airport is backed up and air traffic controllers put planes in holding patterns to land, according to Landry and Gutierrez. Landry and Gutierrez said the plans might reduce the noise in the short term because backups would be reduced, alleviating airplane noise. However, over the long term, the plans have the potential to make noise problems worse, because traffic may grow with the airport.

FAA officials said the Philadelphia airport is the 12th busiest airport in the nation, but it ranks fifth for delays, with an average delay of 10 minutes. Gutierrez, a pilot with Delta Airlines who occasionally flies into Philadelphia, said when traffic is light and the path is clear, pilots can nearly glide in to the runway, only engaging their engines to brake when they are a mile or two out. When there are delays, Gutierrez said planes end up flying slowly, which increases noise. Pilots fly slowly because they need to keep their position in line to land while not getting too close to the plane ahead. The planes are loud because flaps are down and the landing gear may be down so the engines are running harder to keep the plane aloft.

Planes land into the wind, so when the wind blows from the east, they land from the west. And when there is an easterly wind, these slow, loud planes end up over Brandywine Hundred because there is a point 12 miles from the end of the runway, over Arden, called "the Brandywine fix" that is lined up directly with the runway, according to Gutierrez. FAA officials said the wind blows from the east only about 25 percent of the time. The rest of the time, planes line up over the Philadelphia area. Whatever the percentage, residents said that when backups over Delaware happen, it is jarring.

Greenville resident Sam Hobbs said the noise can go on from 5:30 p.m. to midnight and gets so bad that he can't stay outside. Ray Walsh, of Brandywine Hundred, also has had noise problems. "I'll be sitting on the back porch, trying to have a conversation ... and some of them are coming in so low and so loud that you have to stop talking for maybe 20 seconds, and 60 seconds later another one comes," he said. According to Les Blomberg of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a Vermont-based nonprofit anti-noise group, an airplane flying between 1,500 and 3,000 feet can produce from 75 to 90 decibels of noise, depending on the type of aircraft, how it is being operated and weather conditions. He said 75 decibels is comparable to the sound a person would hear standing next to a push lawn mower, and 90 decibels is comparable to being near a riding lawn mower.

The FAA has taken readings in Delaware related to airplane noise but has not yet released those results. Local residents and aviation experts said one solution to the noise would be to enforce a minimum altitude of 3,000 feet for planes passing over Delaware. Richard Ducharme, a manager in the FAA's Air Traffic Division, said just such a limit was imposed in June 2001 because of complaints from Delaware residents. However, he said the altitude limit is not an ironclad rule, and, in rare instances, planes drop below 3,000 feet over Delaware so they can keep a safe distance from one another. However, Andrew Hobbs, Sam Hobbs' father, said he regularly sees planes flying so low he can read the numbers on them.

Ducharme promised to check FAA records to see how often planes are dropping below 3,000 feet and report back to state legislators. He said that violations of the guideline should be the exception and he would take action if it was not. During bad weather, planes must stay at least 3,000 feet above Delaware. Residents have asked Ducharme why that rule can not be imposed during good weather as well. Ducharme said he does not want to tie the hands of air traffic controllers with such a restriction.

Residents and legislators have also lobbied the FAA to route planes over the Delaware River as another noise reduction measure. Landry and Gutierrez said there is an approved flight path that follows the Delaware River until the Commodore Barry Bridge, where pilots then move inland and line up with the runway, but it does not appear to be used. Ducharme said the FAA is considering the river approach as part of a proposal to restructure the Philadelphia airspace that will be released in 2004. He said he would not comment until the report is released. In the redesign of the airspace, he said safety and efficiency will come first. Both Landry and Gutierrez agreed. "Nothing here is worth one life,'' said Landry.

Reach Sean O'Sullivan at 324-2777 or at sosullivan@delawareonline.com.


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