Progress Being Made on
Airplane Noise Issue
Islanders seeking relief from excessive airplane noise should be finding their neighborhoods a little more peaceful these days. Though the final ruling from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) won't be out until December or January, Mayor Alan Mandel told us that at least four airlines are voluntarily asking their pilots to go along with recommendations made by Town Council and approved by the Lee County Port Authority (LCPA) - as well as county commissioners - earlier this year.
"On June 25, Town Manager Terry Stewart and I met with representatives from the LCPA – Project Coordinator Chad Rosenstein, Deputy Executive Director Mark Fisher, Planner Josh Philpott – and Ken Millan and Jim Dickinson, who are from the FAA and manage the Control Tower at Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW),” Mandel told us. "We did this because some residents were asking what was going on with the recommendations approved by council and the commissioners.”
The mayor explained that the recommendations are now being reviewed by the FAA regional office in Atlanta, after which they will be sent to the national office in Washington D.C. For final approval.
"All of the 'heavy lifting' as far as research is being done by the Atlanta office, and it is my impression that the Washington office will simply review their findings and likely go along with their findings,” he told us. "Since both offices have about six months to do their reviews, we expect that the folks in Atlanta will be done by July or August, with a decision from Washington coming in December or January.”
Mandel went on to say that, though this process does take time, things are already happening that should directly benefit island residents.
"Both groups stressed that safety is their main concern, and the interesting thing is that the Tower at RSW has already implemented some of the proposals in that report,” he said. "One is that Tower managers have met with FAA employees, explained to them what the goals are, and they agreed to start telling planes not to fly below 3,000 feet. The other is that they are asking planes – on a voluntary basis – to change their flight patterns so they will fly over Estero Bay instead of the island.”
Changing flight patterns is not as simple as it sounds, however, and that explains why some airlines may resist making the changes until the FAA forces them to do so.
"While we do have the cooperation from the Tower, there are certain reasons some airlines would prefer not to make the changes,” Mandel said. "For them to do this, they need to install certain equipment, work with and train the pilots, and change the programming of their flights. Most of them have all of their flight patterns already mapped out so as to provide the best fuel efficiency, so this is a big change.”
Mayor Mandel said that another reason some airlines are resisting is due to the comfort of the passengers.
"Coming in over the back bay as opposed to flying out over the Gulf before making a slow turn and coming across the island requires a steeper bank just prior to landing, which some people don't like,” he said. "Even if planes are willing to come over the back bay, the Tower has to determine whether or not its safe as there may be other planes waiting in the queue, and it is possible that if you have one plane coming in from the Gulf, and another from the bay, they could theoretically reach the same point at the same time.”
Despite all of this, Mandel told us that at least four airlines – Delta, JetBlue, Southwest and US Airways have made the adjustments necessary for their pilots to be able to follow the recommendations, though it is totally up to the pilots at this point as to whether or not they do it.
"Other proposed recommendations impacting our island include increasing the altitude of early morning flights to freight airlines such as FedEx and UPS and changing Runway 24 to a preferred arrival direction to the southwest rather than northeast during the night time hours to limit nighttime flights over our beach,” he said.
The mayor told us that about 60-70% of the flights from the north currently fly over the island, a number that increases slightly during season due to changes in wind direction.
"We also learned that the western outside limits of the Tower's control over pilots runs right along our beach,” he said. "It is unlikely the Tower will ever have authority west of this line for two reasons; one, a study would take a long time, and two, general aviation interests would most likely be opposed.”
What people need to realize, Mandel stressed, is that changes are happening but things like this take time.
"When you think about how the final determination from the FAA won't come until December or January, then you have to give the airlines time to incorporate the changes into their training, planning and programming, it may be next summer before they are all made,” he said. "The situation should improve, it's already improving, it just takes time.”
On Tuesday morning, Councilwoman Jo List and island resident Tom Merrill – who leads the grassroots organization on the beach that initially brought the airplane noise problem to Town Council and whose members have spent thousands of hours doing research on the issue – went out to Southwest Regional Airport and met with airport officials, coming away with much the same feeling as Mandel did.
"Things are happening – it is slow, but they are happening,” List said. "What brought all this on is the fact that a number of years ago the federal level of the FAA changed the patterns for all the airspace in the eastern United States. This federal decision greatly impacted Fort Myers Beach.”
List told us that there are now efforts being made to change that.
"There is something in the pipeline at the federal level that would have the planes turn over the back bay,” she said. "A new charted route, as opposed to what we have now.”
List credits the hard work and cooperation between Merrill's grassroots organization, local officials, the LCPA and the FAA for making change possible.
"We really have made some impacts,” she said. "What I'd like to see now is to have someone on Town staff serve as a point person for people to call with air noise issues. Someone who is aware of all the history, the details and the progress of the issue so they can answer folks' questions. That way we would have all the information codified and contained in one spot.”
Keri Hendry Weeg