Airlines seek speedier reviews for new runways

Published July 1, 2001

Responding to increasing flight delays and overcrowded airports, airline industry officials are urging government officials to streamline the environmental review process for the construction of new runways.

Industry-backed legislation would direct federal, state, and local agencies to study environmental impacts of proposed runways, including impacts under the Endangered Species Act, simultaneously, rather than the current process of successive reviews by each government entity.

Industry and government officials agree the construction of new runways is a necessary and efficient way to reduce flight delays. “The biggest bang for the buck in adding capacity to the system is building additional runways at the major airports,” said Todd Hauptli of the American Association of Airport Executives and the Airports Council International-North America.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), more than one-quarter of all airline flights were delayed or canceled last year. Moreover, the FAA projects airport use will increase by 39 percent by the year 2012.

The completion of new runways can take 10 to 15 years after their initial planning period. Environmental reviews currently account for one-third of the necessary completion time.

Among the most frustrating examples of delay are current runway projects in Seattle, Atlanta, and Cleveland. Each city has severely overcrowded airports but is having to wait more than 10 years for the completion of planned runways.

Dennis McGrann, executive director of the National Organization to Ensure a Sound-Controlled Environment, a group formed to lobby for federal restrictions on airport noise, warned, “We would have major problems with any proposal that would eliminate normal environmental reviews.” Countered FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, “No one is talking about shortchanging the environmental process” by requesting simultaneous rather than successive environmental reviews.

The FAA further intends to streamline the process by having its local and regional offices jointly review each proposed project, rather than have the regional office and the national office review each project successively. Airports are chipping in by picking up the tab for the FAA to hire additional consultants to review expansion proposals. The FAA has already increased the size of its environmental impact team from 33 to 38 employees, and is looking to add more lawyers with environmental backgrounds.

Anti-growth environmental groups, who oppose any increases in airport capacity, will also fight the FAA’s streamlining process. “There is this false argument that you have to sacrifice things like environmental safeguards instead of making the tough call to make sure that both can happen at the same time,” said Scott Stoermer of the League of Conservation Voters.