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Opposition to flight paths taking off

Delco threatens to sue FAA

STANDING ON THE EDGE of the Industrial Highway in Tinicum Township, Joe Anderson looked like a lone protester holding his "No Fly Zone" sign. A couple of drivers honked.

"They're trying to buffalo us," Anderson, a retired truck mechanic, said of the Federal Aviation Administration. He's opposed to its plan to send more low-flying planes over Delaware County.

Anderson isn't the only one.

A couple of hundred yards away, a 1,500-strong throng had descended on the Holiday Inn to sound off against the FAA's proposed airspace redesign.

The agency wants to modernize the airspace in the Northeast Corridor to handle increasing air traffic at Philadelphia International Airport and four other major airports in New York and New Jersey.

It's a wildly unpopular proposal.

Politicians on both sides of the Delaware River are lining up in opposition. Many residents fear that the FAA's preferred choice, known as the Integrated Airspace Alternative, will drive down their property values and threaten their safety.

Then there's the noise and pollution.

"The new plan they're proposing is going to make it impossible to even talk to the neighbors outside," said Eileen Henry, who has lived west of the airport in Norwood since 1972.

And if a plane goes down, Henry said, "it's going to take out a neighborhood with it."

U.S. Reps. Rob Andrews and Joe Sestak, who represent South Jersey and Delaware County, respectively, have vowed to stop the plan. If they have to do it in court, so be it, they said.

"I think the FAA is out of control here," Andrews said.

Sestak said the agency has too much power to define the purpose of such airport projects, limit alternatives, and decide how much analysis should be done before implementing them.

He and Andrews were shocked last month when they met with FAA Administrator Marion Blakey and discovered that the agency doesn't know how much the Northeast airspace redesign will cost.

"They only looked at the benefit for the airlines," Sestak said.

But can the FAA be stopped?

Not likely, says Nick Lacey, an aviation consultant who served as the agency's director of flight standards from 1999 to 2002. That doesn't mean, however, that the public-comment process won't produce results, he said.

"Ideally, what comes out of the process is at best a compromise," said Lacey, chief operating officer at Virginia-based Morton, Beyer and Agnew. "I think your chances of stopping it are slim to none, but the impact on any community, town or entity may be kept to a minimum.

"If you don't comment at all, who knows? Those are the ones that end up with all the airplanes going overhead."

Last night's meeting was scheduled to discuss the FAA's noise-mitigation report, released last month. Under that plan, westbound departing flights would be grouped closer to the Delaware River to reduce the impact to surrounding communities.

Few are satisfied with the compromise.

If the FAA doesn't back off, Delaware County plans to file a lawsuit in August, when a final decision is expected on reorganizing the airspace.

The county will argue that the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to detail the cumulative environmental impact of three ongoing projects at the airport.

"It seems to me they came up with the conclusion long ago as to what they want to do, and now they are simply plugging in data to support that conclusion," county Council Chairman Andrew Reilly said.

FAA spokeswoman Arlene Murray said the agency does take public comments into account when planning projects, as evinced by the more than 100 meetings it has held in five states for the airspace redesign. *