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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Page updated at 09:30 p.m.
FAA OKs new flights paths for Sea-Tac landings
By Alexa Vaughn
Seattle Times staff reporter
A new way to land planes at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport received final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday.
The method, part of the FAA's Greener Skies Over Seattle program, will use satellite-guided technology to change and streamline flight paths as soon as spring 2013, an FAA spokesman said.
The FAA expects the program to improve safety, make flights more fuel-efficient and direct planes over fewer Seattle neighborhoods.
Instead of arrivals descending in a stair-step pattern as they now do, jets using Greener Skies' NextGen technology would begin descent closer to the airport and descend smoothly, powering down into what's called flight idle mode. The FAA says planes in the program will use two fewer barrels of fuel per flight, which eventually will save millions of dollars a year.
The satellite technology is also supposed to reduce potential miscommunication between pilots and air traffic control.
The technology is used in more than 700 flight paths across the U.S., but figuring out how to use it in an airspace as busy and complex as Seattle's has been a challenge, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor.
Controversy surrounding the program still simmers in several neighborhoods. The FAA's failure to hold a public question-and-answer session on the flight-path changes and potential impact before the program was approved angered hundreds of Seattle residents and drew criticism from Mayor Mike McGinn last summer.
FAA officials instead directed residents struggling to understand technical parts of the program's environmental assessment to submit comments and questions by Sept. 14, which the FAA would respond to only after Greener Skies was approved. The FAA said the final report, with responses to residents' concerns, will be posted on the Greener Skies website Monday (seati.ms/Rx6t22).
"To be honest, we don't know what they just passed," said Erik Stanford, a Beacon Hill resident who in September helped organize a North Beacon Hill-based task force called Quieter Skies.
Stanford said he had hoped a group of more than 300 Seattle residents could persuade the FAA to reconsider its refusal to host a question-and-answer meeting, if only to allay concerns that Greener Skies could increase air traffic and noise for some areas.
He thought an FAA-hosted meeting about air-traffic issues, initially set for Oct. 23, might be a chance to get some answers before the program's approval. But a day after Quieter Skies submitted a suggested agenda, the meeting was rescheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 13. It will be 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the auditorium at Cleveland High School, 5511 15th Ave. S.
"We were under the impression we had the FAA nervous, maybe hampering the approval process," Stanford said. "Obviously, that wasn't the case."
Gregor said rescheduling the October meeting had nothing to do with Greener Skies' approval process; it was canceled because a key FAA official couldn't attend.
"Our public comments and petition have been dismissed and ignored by the FAA and Port of Seattle," said a statement Quieter Skies released after the FAA approved Greener Skies.
Gregor said that while residents like Stanford have legitimate concerns about more air traffic over their homes, Greener Skies won't make things worse. "Our report found no significant environmental impact," Gregor said.
When the Greener Skies program does go into effect in the spring, less than 15 percent of Sea-Tac arrivals will use the technology, but the FAA plans to gradually expand its usage. Southwest Airlines and Alaska Airlines will be the first companies to start using it.
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.
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