Citizens’ Group Again Questions Airport Safety

The South Metro Airport Action Council (SMAAC) reiterated that State and Federal policy favoring high-rate hub use of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) must be reconsidered. The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) and FAA implemented several projects to expand the Northwest/SkyTeam hub. SMAAC noted that delayed Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) development of improved airport ground-safety systems, coupled with light staffing of air traffic controllers, should have limited operations at MSP. Instead, peak-hour use increased far more than originally planned.

“Simultaneous use of three runways at high rates solicits an accident here.” according to SMAAC President Jim Spensley. “Planned peak-hour use of MSP out-strips safe capacity considering hub-related congestion and long delays in deploying improved ground safety systems.”

The SMAAC Candidates’ Forum on August 24th allowed Congressional candidates to comment on FAA re-authorization and budget issues. Hub expansion at MSP, more gates per runway and more flights per hour, increased noise exposure, pollution, and fares, but decreased airline competition, contrary to goals set by the Legislature in 1996. Security lines are long at busy hours, and people connecting at MSP were screened elsewhere. SMAAC is concerned that higher operational rates, more airliners flying closer together and taxiing further and faster, are a safety risk at MSP given the collision there (May 2005) and recent incidents at other busy hubs.

“Now our focus should be on State government.” Spensley said, “Because the Legislature has not enforced many provisions of the 1996 law allowing MAC to expand MSP and because Governor Pawlenty appointed airport commissioners friendly to Northwest Airlines, air travel will continue to be more expensive (no competition and higher costs) in the best case. In the worst case, an accident will break Northwest’s back if other issues don’t close them down first.”

SMAAC holds that the Governor and the Legislature have been inattentive since 1998 when expansion plans were finalized; particularly, in 2000 when MAC negotiated leases allowing Northwest to increase its number and per cent of MSP gates, and then in 2002, when MAC added more gates for lease to Northwest’s regional affiliates while delaying new runway construction and environmental programs due to uncertainty after the 9/11/2001 attacks.. MAC efforts to attract airline competition were disabled by high gate leases and landing fees needed to finance MSP expansion, and by operations concentrated at peak hours for hub expansion.

FAA increased runway use rates by more than a third, and using the new runway makes planned MSP capacity about 160 operations per hour. SMAAC notes that this rate corresponds to over 1.3 million operations per year, while half that many were said to be needed by 2020 during expansion debate in 1996. According to SMAAC, the physical size of MSP imposes limits and rates should be lower given the air traffic control systems available. MAC says that the planned rates are “just as safe” as in 1996. MAC refused to limit operations in poor weather or ask FAA to reduce rates pending the investigation of the May 2005 collision at MSP by the National Transportation Safety Board.


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