Up in the air
Jul 31, 2014 12:01PM
● By Dia
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by Christina Mlynski
What first drew you to Southlake? For many, it was the tree-lined streets and parks, great schools and world-class shopping — along with the close proximity to DFW Airport, a gateway to nonstop travel to just about anywhere in the world. But lately that benefit has come at a price.
While aircraft noise has been a concern for Southlake residents since the ’80s, the last 18 months have seen an escalation in the use of runways that allow for planes to arrive and depart directly over the city.
In particular, the runway known as 31L at DFW Inter- national Airport has become a challenge for residents and thus a challenge for city officials.
“In the fall of 2013, the wind patterns allowed for more aircraft to land on the runway and the noise complaints came piling in,” explains former Southlake City Council- woman Pamela Muller, who has been a part of Southlake’s aircraft noise and utilization program for more than 25 years. “It’s nothing the tower is doing or the pilot is doing. It’s just nature.”
That particular runway is typically used just 2 per- cent of the time for departures, when there are strong winds out of the north — but it’s on those very days that aircraft will experience drift and therefore find it more difficult to maintain the center line of the aircraft utili- zation zone over Southlake. In addition, in recent years DFW Airport adjusted practices on this runway causing a higher volume of departures because of new maintenance programs.
According to airport officials, “Regular airport run- way closures are necessary for safe operations on DFW’s airfield, from painting runway markings and replacing lighting, to extensive pavement repairs. While DFW must periodically close runways for safety and maintenance, DFW developed its runway closure program with local communities in mind to keep them informed and mini- mize potential noise impacts.”
By working with local communities’ best inter- ests in mind, DFW does schedule necessary runway closures during less-impactful periods of the year, typically summer months, where the weather is expected to cause fewer delays in construction.
The airport, in its efforts to keep surrounding cities informed, announced closures on runway 31L, which began in June of this year, but end August 17. The predominantly south winds over the summer months enable the Federal Aircraft Administration to regularly redistribute flights away from 31L.
But remaining scheduled closures for this fall, including those of the eastern runways 35C and 35R, will ultimately affect air traffic over Southlake. Although DFW Airport does not anticipate those closures to significantly affect operations closer to the area, it does note, “the FAA must necessarily redistribute aircraft during a runway closure in order to safely and efficiently move aircraft in and out of DFW Airport, which may include use of Runway 31L, in particular, as aircraft operations continue to grow.”
With a unique vantage point as both the Mayor of Southlake and Vice President of Commercial Develop- ment for DFW Airport, John Terrell has a solid under- standing of the situation — past, present and future. He explains, “Since the 1980s, the City of Southlake has worked with the FAA the DFW Airport Board and its staff on land use and noise concerns. This team effort resulted in the development of the Air Corridor Utilization Zones to clearly identify areas where airplanes might fly over Southlake particularly during takeoff. In the end, this document has helped City leaders effectively manage and guide Southlake’s development requests.”
By the end of the ’80s, Southlake was in a legal battle with the Federal Aviation Administration, DFW Airport and a few airlines as a result of aircraft noise. However, a settlement was reached in which an agreed upon noise-impact corridor was established.
The city currently uses this noise-impact corridor in its land-use planning. Southlake and the airport have a compatibility agreement in which the city agreed to limit development that is in proximity of the airport when it comes to residential, commercial developments, schools and child care centers.
If an incompatible development, which was outlined by the FAA, is planned within in the area, the airport will send a notice to Southlake with its objections. Additionally, Southlake has required enhanced building standards of all developments within this corridor.
“We agreed that if [the FAA and DFW Airport] keep the aircraft on the center line, we will require insulation for noise reduction within the homes,” Muller says. “Fortunately, the homes are built so well that it hasn’t been a difficult issue. We also make homeowners sign a form so that they know where the aircraft are and what to expect.”
While Southlake understands there is little the city can do to regulate or manage the activities of a federal agency or even a quasi-governmental entity such as DFW Airport, city councilmembers rely on open communication between the parties involved in managing the community’s expectations.
Such an arrangement has proven to be helpful in developing initiatives aimed at reducing noise as much as possible. DFW’s Noise Compatibility Program, for instance, utilizes noise sensors to actively monitor aircraft noise levels not only around the airport but in surrounding communities. The program also maintains a 24-hour hour telephone hotline and manages email inquiries through the address email@example.com.
Southlake also joined a national organization that works to reduce aircraft noise called the National Organization to Insure a Sound Controlled Environment (NOISE). The group represents communities trying to find solutions to aviation noise. The city set aside money in its 2014 budget to join NOISE after complaints over the aircraft traffic surfaced in 2012 and 2013. Southlake is the only community within the advocacy group that had adopted a Master Land Use plan that takes into consideration the current flight patterns and the appropriate land uses under these areas.
DFW Airport officials in the noise compatibility office constantly monitor flight tracks. However since the runway pointing toward Southlake does not have the computer navigational aid of other runways, known as NextGen, strong winds can push aircraft over residential areas.
DFW Airport and the FAA agreed roughly 10 years ago that the runways impacting the city aren’t used often enough to warrant navigational equipment. Given that NextGen is not a part of the main runways at the airport, planes may begin to drift in a strong north wind, pushing the aircraft over more populated areas. And DFW monitors sound from aircrafts and from local community activities through the use of 35 permanently mounted noise monitor sites located in nine cities in three counties over a 110-square mile area.
While FAA and DFW Airport do not see an immediate need for navigational aid, technologies to reduce aircraft noise have evolved over time through efforts of aircraft and engine manufacturers as well as NASA. The ultimate goal of satellite aids such as NextGen is to create greater efficiencies, resulting in more flexible and direct flight paths over commercial and residential developments.
In the meantime, “It’s quite obvious that there’s a fairly simple solution,” Muller says. “Other communities are building residences right up to the airport, but we’ve got to all live together. We are all neighbors. There are a lot of executives who live in Southlake because of the convenience to the airport and the noise becomes a backdrop.”
“The negative impact to neighboring cities close to DFW Airport, like Southlake, Grapevine, Colleyville, Coppell and Euless, is that there will be airplane noise when you live around a major airport,” explains former city councilman Martin Schelling. “Over the years, the decibel noise from airplanes has been greatly reduced and will continue to be reduced with newer technology. Unfortunately, they will never be completely silent.”
Still, the bigger benefit of living in proximity to one of the busiest airports in the country seems to be a valid point to live in Southlake and surrounding communities. “Living close to an international airport provides great access to most destinations in the U.S. and world, and generally with good prices and itineraries,” Schelling says. “I don’t believe that the airplane noise will significantly affect our way of life in Southlake, unless the FAA changes the flight patterns and approach elevations from the way they are operating today.”
In the end, departures over Southlake account for a small percent of DFW’s total operations, still the airport continues to work collaboratively with both FAA and the airlines to seek short-term practices, which could lead to the best long-term solutions. One successful initiative implemented during last year’s increased traffic was to have the runway’s departing aircraft reduce the number of low altitude turnouts within a 5-mile mark.
With thoughts of the future Mayor Terrell says, “Ongoing communication is the key to this conversation. A lot has changed since the 1980s and our conversations need to evolve as well. I know that all sides are committed to making this work and to bring great ideas to the table.”