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Delco residents vent at FAA

At a meeting to discuss plans that would send more planes over their homes, they made their anger clear.

Hundreds of unhappy Delaware County residents, yelling comments and hooting, let Federal Aviation Administration officials know last night just how much they hate a plan to redirect air traffic over their homes as a way to reduce flight delays at Philadelphia International Airport.

A crowd of close to 500 people overflowed a meeting room at the Holiday Inn on Route 291 in Essington, frequently interrupting FAA officials as they tried to explain how they had heard their concerns about aircraft noise and safety hazards, and had altered their original plans to redesign the airspace in the Philadelphia and New York areas.

The crowd clapped and cheered each time a public official or ordinary citizen told the agency representatives that nothing except the FAA abandoning the plan would satisfy them.

"We have enough noise," said Steve Basht, a Folsom resident. "Every time the wind switches we can hear them, and if they start flying over my home it's going to be worse."

Virginia Jones, a resident of Woodlyn since 1959, said she believes Ridley Township has already suffered since the construction of Interstate 95 and the Blue Route. "I'm here to voice my opposition," she said. "I feel the people of Ridley Township have done our share."

The FAA has spent almost a decade and more than $50 million studying how to overhaul the crowded airspace in the Philadelphia and New York areas as a way to reduce the number of delayed flights.

Philadelphia International and the three major New York airports - Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark - perennially have among the nation's worst records for on-time airline flights. Philadelphia finished No. 27 out of 31 large airports in on-time performance in 2005 and 2006, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.

The FAA announced on March 23 that of four alternatives it studied, it favored the most controversial one: The plan would fan planes departing to the west from Philadelphia in six directions, taking them over residential areas of Delaware County and South Jersey. Most flights now make a 10-degree turn to the left just after takeoff, taking them down the Delaware River to an altitude of about 3,000 feet before they make turns.

Two weeks later, responding to continuing protests from residents and political leaders, the FAA said it would adopt different procedures, or "mitigation strategies," directing pilots to use just three departure paths.

Steve Kelley, the FAA official in charge of the project, said using three paths would achieve most of the same benefits as using six paths while reducing the noise heard by people nearby. At night and at times of reduced air traffic, controllers may also continue to keep planes over the Delaware before they make a turn, he said.

"The mitigation strategies are the result of comments we've received," Kelley said. "They don't eliminate the noise but they substantially reduce those impacts."

FAA officials said a final decision will be made this summer and they could start using the new takeoff paths as soon as August.

The FAA's effort to reduce flight delays has generated little apparent public concern outside of the communities closest to the airport.

City Aviation Director Charles J. Isdell, who was observing the meeting but didn't speak, said the airport is a bystander in the FAA process.

"We would like to see some delay reduction come out of this, but without it having too great an impact on the residents," Isdell said. "We hope they find a happy medium."

The CEO Council for Growth, a division of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, has endorsed the plan, noting that the airport generates tens of thousands of jobs and is a vital economic asset to the region.

At the meeting, the Delaware County residents also said they were concerned about two recent incidents in which frozen toilet waste from airplanes passing overhead fell on homes. But a few in the crowd also said they were there just to listen and learn.

Ben Unkle, who just moved into a new home in Tinicum Township, the community that now hears the most noise from departing planes, said he knew how close he would be living to the airport. "I don't want any more noise," he said, "but I love the house, so it balances out."