The Lee County Port Authority recently received what some residents of Fort Myers Beach would call an unfavorable ruling regarding the Record of Approval from the Federal Aviation Administration involving the Southwest Florida International Airport Federal Aviation Regulations Part 150 Noise Compatibility Study.
Earlier this month, the FAA declined 11 of the 16 program measures proposed in the noise study. The synopsis of the ruling stated, "federal agencies do not consider the aircraft noise levels for surrounding communities associated with RSW operations as 'significant' according to noise standards." The analysis in the noise compatibility program center on the Day-Night Sound Level 65 contour (the required standardized measurement of airport noise).
Basically, from a federal perspective, RSW or FMB does not have a noise problem.
"In order for the FAA to approve those measures you have to demonstrate that nine compatible land uses are removed from Level 65 contour," said LCPA consultant Mike Arnold. "It was impossible to demonstrate they were removed. So, basically we used the Part 150 process to identify measures that can provide improvement for the community."
That process as well as implemented policy changes that state no more formal approvals on a voluntary basis appear to hinder a positive decision. Arnold said the Government Accountability Office issued a report in 2012 that was critical of the FAA's approvals of measures in the FAR Part 150 process.
"While they recognize there are things that have benefits outside the 65, they are no longer approving those under the FAR Part 150 study under a mandatory basis because of that report," Arnold said. "It used to say 'approved as voluntary' but no longer are they doing that. They are just disapproving it, then they put language in it that says we are not getting in the way of you proceeding with this on a voluntary basis."
The decision on the ruling has left some Beach residents puzzled, confused and angry. Concerned Beach residents Annie and Tom Babcock, Tom Merrill and John Pohland among others have been involved in meetings with local FAA and Lee County Port Authority officials over the years. They have been pushing for aircraft to fly over bay waters -like in the past- and not over Estero Island.
"RSW told our town council there could never be a railroad track in the sky over any one community. That was over 15 years ago," said Tom Merrill, a long-time Beach resident who brought the issue to the forefront originally by presenting facts to the inaugural FMB Town Council. "At the time, most approaches were over Estero Bay. Now, about 90 percent of approaches from the west are over Fort Myers Beach, not over unpopulated Estero Bay."
The latest change in "roadway" over the Beach has been in effect for at least 5-6 years. Noise is mainly related to low-flying aircraft, which have been reported to directly pass over the island as low as 1,500 feet, half of the recommended 3,000 feet.
Beach resident John Pohland, a registered pilot, stated a problem has to do with RSW not having the proper, precision instrument landing system. ILS on Runway 24 (currently only on Runway 6) would provide more landing options -especially during windy or other poor weather-related conditions- and could significantly reduce nighttime over-flights for Estero Island.
"All of the other international airports in Florida have ILS," Pohland said. "We should have one for Runway 24, but we don't. That would allow instrument landing conditions from the other direction. I think that is a real problem. It's almost negligent because now they only have one runway to land on during certain meteorology conditions."
The flight path over the Beach is nearly down the middle of the island. Merrill has been on Council record pleading about this issue.
"While other communities have been able to heave a sigh of relief, we have been targeted," he said. "Our town leadership has kicked this can down the road for almost two decades. Hopefully, we now have a new council that recognizes the importance of defending our quality of life and has the will to seriously deal with this important threat to our community. Incredibly, while various consultants and lawyers parade through town offices for a myriad of interests, no town council has ever even listened to professionals who may be able to develop a defense strategy for quieter skies. As a result, too little too late could be our epitaph."
The FAA ruling preceded an extensive noise study process -one that included 11 public workshops, six community meetings, three public board meetings and one public hearing. It had been more than 14 months since FAR Part 150 recommendations were approved by Lee County Board of Port Commissioners and forwarded to FAA for comment and approval. Recommendations have included keeping aircraft at or above 3,000 feet over Estero Island, maximizing routing of aircraft over uninhabited Estero Bay rather than the island, establishing Runway 24 as the preferred runway from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. to route aircraft away from the island, increasing altitude for early morning arrivals and promoting use of RNAV optimized descent approach to Runway 6 to reduce noise and improve aircraft efficiency.
"We don't ever want to preclude safety. Safety always has to be the most important thing," said Pohland. "But we certainly have found (the exclusion of ILS on Runway 24) to be a short-coming. It is one of the things that need to be addressed."
During the study, Beach officials and residents have worked with the FAA Air Traffic Organization to implement voluntary flight procedures and operational measures to reduce aircraft overflights to areas of concern, whenever inclement weather or wind is not a deterrent. Those voluntary measures are expected to continue, says Arnold.
"The air traffic control tower has continued to move toward implementing all of those measures," he said. "We are using the process to open up the lines of communication between the FAA and the community. The fact that the airport and tower have been moving forward with these measures for the past two years, I look at it as a big success."
Then-Beach Mayor Alan Mandel, who was at a March 7 meeting with Town Manager Don Stilwell,
has kept tabs on the aircraft over-flight issues during his years in office and is happy about the voluntary measures being implemented. The FAA ruling states voluntary measures have already proven to help reduce the number and/or increase the altitude of aircraft over communities where overflights are a concern, without jeopardizing safety or sacrificing one community for another.
"We will continue to work with the port authority and through them the local FAA to implement the recommendations," said Mandel earlier. "That's why I think it was important to develop this relationship between Town staff and Council and the folks at the tower and the port authority over this year. They are moving forward in that direction, and there are things the (people at the) tower are doing to alleviate this problem."