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Thu, May 17, 2007

FAA Terms FLL Expansion 'Critical'

But Court Decision Stops Effort To Control Congestion

Florida's Broward County has not had a good week. The Federal Aviation Administration said Tuesday Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, the county's main airport, must expand immediately to handle increasing demand. But last Friday, a federal court order was issued that threatened to eliminate the main strategy for dealing with that very issue.

FLL is one of several US airports where the FAA has said expansion was critical. Also on the list: New York's LaGuardia Airport, Newark Liberty International and Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

Although there has been some decline in numbers since Hurricane Wilma in 2005, FLL has been one of the nation's fastest-growing airports, a double-edged sword.

In May 2005, the airport, already known for its delays, was put on a federal list of six potential "trouble spots" for vacation travelers. So, the FAA insisted it had all the necessary authority to mandate "all available runways" be used to reduce traffic backups in an effort quell the resultant nationwide domino-effect of delays, according to the Miami Herald.

But, that flew in the face of a 1995 agreement that the north runway would get the bulk of traffic. The mandate angered not only residents near the airport, but nearby cities as well. Two residents and the cities of Hollywood and Dania Beach filed a lawsuit, complaining that allowing increased traffic on the southern and crosswind runways made living near the airport "miserable."

Marco Salvino Sr., a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the increased traffic "sounds like a missile," and jet exhaust leaves a "sheen" of "black residue" on his car and swimming pool.

The US Court of Appeals in Washington sided with the plaintiffs last week, saying the FAA's 2005 decision was a major policy change on runway use and such a decision could not be made without an environmental impact study.

"The FAA can't just arbitrarily change things," said Dania Beach Mayor Bob Anton.

As ANN has reported, there is an environmental impact study should be out this spring. In November 2006, planned expansion slowed because an FAA forecast suggested airport operations weren't growing as quickly as predicted. An environmental impact study on the expansion was planned to be released at the end 2006, but was bumped to a spring release so the FAA can factor in updated passenger figures to be released in January.

According to FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Bergen, between 900 and 1,100 flights use the airport's three runways daily, with the main north runway getting the lion's share of about 65 percent.

The crosswind runway, which cuts diagonally across the two main runways, has seen about two to three percent of overall traffic since 2005. That particular runway also is used for landings whenever the northern runway is closed, Bergen said.

Last week's ruling could bring that practice to a congested halt, however, resulting in an increase in delays just in time for tourist season.

"With less traffic there, obviously the situation would be better," said Salvino, who has lived in the nearby Melaleuca Gardens neighborhood in Dania Beach for 54 years. "I think people here will enjoy their homes a lot more."

County Commissioner Ilene Lieberman on Tuesday applauded the court's recent decision. Commissioners wanted an environmental review when the FAA informed the county it would increase use of the other runways in 2005, she said.

"The crosswind is the most noise-sensitive of all the runways out there," Lieberman said. "I'm glad the FAA will have to do that kind of analysis."

But many other county commissioners and local business leaders agree with the FAA in that Broward needs to expand the airport to reduce congestion.

Friday's decision has no bearing on the larger issue on how or if to expand the south runway. The process will include a separate environment study, but that process has also been in process for more than a decade. The earliest a longer runway would open is 2012.

But any expansion by anyone might be hard to pull off at all. As ANN has reported, opponents of the proposed expansion rallied at a public hearing recently. The group informed county officials they refused to be forced from their homes by excessive noise caused by large jets.

Anton suggests the airport could try to alleviate congestion by rearranging the existing flight schedule thereby eliminating some of the delays. To him, the benefits of a larger airport just don't outweigh the inconvenience to nearby residents.

"How much is a... delay worth?" he said. The FAA has 45 days to issue an appeal.

FMI: www.broward.org/airport, www.faa.gov

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