Thursday, June 19, 2014

Federal officials released wrong info on new airport flight paths

Federal officials released incorrect and incomplete information about how new O’Hare International Airport flight paths would affect residents during a legally required period of public comment, the Chicago Sun-Times has found.

Nearly three-quarters of the figures in one key table — on the now-contentious issue of what percentage of traffic each runway will carry — were quietly changed online months after public hearings ended, the Sun-Times discovered.

Some changes doubled, tripled and even quadrupled the percentage of flights the runways were predicted to direct over Bensenville, Wood Dale, the city’s 41st Ward and Schiller Park by the time the $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program is completed.

In addition, the Sun-Times found that the Federal Aviation Administration had the figures to calculate the actual number of flights each runway would carry but never produced those numbers at the legally required public hearings in 2005 on its draft environmental impact study of the project.

During  those hearings, the FAA did display a map of areas it predicted were due for more noise, but critics called it “misleading.’’ An FAA spokesman said it was very clear.

U.S. Congressman Mike Quigley, D-Ill., called some of the FAA data changes “shocking.” He said the FAA’s public input process was so “flawed” that new hearings should be held.

The revelations call “into question the entire process and its validity,’’ said Quigley, who has been urging city and federal officials to address O’Hare jet noise.

Blindsided by a blitz

The Sun-Times’ discoveries help explain why some city and suburban residents now contend they were blindsided by the blitz of planes that greeted them after the Chicago Department of Aviation completed the first phase of its O’Hare overhaul and finally launched a dramatic change in flight paths last Oct. 17.

The big switch shifted air traffic from mostly diagonal runways to mostly parallel ones that now bring far more jets over city and suburban areas directly east and west of O’Hare. Another parallel runway is due to open in 2015. A second runway, as well as a runway extension, is being planned for completion in 2020, but funding is uncertain.

The findings emerge after the Sun-Times reported last week that the FAA did not hold any of its legally required public hearings in areas due for the worst jet noise.

Quigley said new hearings should be held in areas facing adverse noise impacts and feature “full disclosure” of information about runway traffic. A new environmental impact study also should be done, the congressman said.

The location of the hearings — outside heavily impacted areas — and the piecemeal information the public was given during them has spawned resident anger about runway changes that are critical to O’Hare’s ability to expand capacity and reduce delays, Quigley said.

“The seeds of the problem we’re facing now were, I think in some part, due to the fact that the process was flawed,’’ Quigley said.

Doing the math

The Sun-Times compared original online FAA tables with a final version of the same tables — and additional data obtained from the FAA website— to determine the differences in the FAA’s 2005 predictions. 

The Sun-Times found:
  • The two busiest departure runways were aimed at Bensenville and Wood Dale. They were predicted to carry 407 average daytime takeoffs, up from an original 78, and another 372 daytime departures, up from an original 79. 
  • The busiest arrival runway was sending an average of 338 daytime landings over Schiller Park, up from an original 95.
  • Chicago’s 41st Ward and Rosemont were bearing the brunt of nighttime arrivals from a runway with an average 59 night landings a day, up from an original 12.
  • While daytime arrivals were split fairly evenly between three runways — at 338, 322 and 317 each — the city’s 41st Ward would see a lopsided 60 percent of all night arrivals. Bensenville and Wood Dale would shoulder the brunt of daytime takeoffs.
FAA spokesman Tony Molinaro said the original runway percentage table was ultimately “corrected” but he could not explain why it was changed or say for sure how it was referred to at February 2005 public hearings. At the time of the hearings, the original table was available online, at 33 public libraries and in bound materials at each hearing, he said.

The corrected table was part of a July 2005 “final” environmental impact study that was released online and in local libraries during a second, one-month public comment period, Molinaro noted. But no public hearings were held on the final online version, which was among the 7.5 million web pages of online FAA information about the project.

Jac Charlier, a leader of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, or FAIR, said a neutral party should evaluate all the information the FAA initially gave the public about the O’Hare overhaul.

“Why should we think anything else they presented the public was any different and actually correct?” Charlier said.

Charlier questioned why the FAA didn’t hold another public hearing to acknowledge the misinformation in the errant table.

“This was intentional and strategic with the goal being no resistance,’’ Charlier said. “They didn’t want anything other than a rubber stamp.”

If the FAA had released the predicted number of flights before its required hearings, the meetings would have been mobbed, Charlier said.

“It would have been huge — the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Bud Billiken and the Pride Parade all wrapped into one,’’ Charlier said.

Instead, even the FAA conceded hearing turnout was “very light.” Held in two areas due for less jet noise and a third unaffected by FAA noise predictions, the hearings resulted in comments that were as much as four-to-one in favor of the city’s proposal, according to FAA calculations.

Bensenville Mayor Frank Soto called the revision of data after public hearings ended “a bait and switch.’’ And, he said, the FAA should have calculated actual flight numbers and displayed them at the hearings.

“How could people make educated decisions without having that information provided and displayed?” Soto said. “It certainly isn’t full disclosure.”

Map: “Clear” — or “Misleading?”

Instead, the FAA displayed a “noise contour” map on a poster board with color-coded areas that the map predicted would receive less noise or more noise five years after the plan’s completion, Molinaro said.

The agency also offered visitors the ability to plug their addresses into a computer to see if they would fall into the worst noise areas — those eligible for free sound insulation, Molinaro said.

The errant table which would have told residents what percentage of flights were aimed at their homes was not displayed on hearing poster boards, Molinaro said.

“The contour map and the computer database provided the best information on noise impacts,’’ Molinaro said.

“What matters to a resident is whether they would experience less noise, the same amount of noise or more noise,’’ he said. “This map displays that very clearly.’’

However, the map’s legend never explained it was only counting noise that dropped from or rose to legally onerous levels — high enough to qualify for free sound insulation.

Molinaro said a resident who had questions about the map could have asked experts standing near it.

But even with an explanation, the map “tends to imply that the only bothersome levels of noise are within the contour. Now people know from experience that’s not the case,’’ countered James Argionis, chairman of the Park Ridge O’Hare Airport Commission.

Homeowners on either side of the noise contour have been complaining about a “highway” of planes over their heads they never saw before — and fretting that their home values are plummeting as a result. O’Hare noise complaints — many of them outside the contour — have skyrocketed to record levels since the big flight path switch.

“That map doesn’t give the full picture or let people know that along the flight paths they are going to get bothersome noise”— just not at a level the FAA predicts will warrant free sound insulation, Argionis said. He called the map “misleading.”

“A pattern of deception”

Joseph Karaganis, a former attorney for Bensenville who opposed the airport overhaul, questioned if incorrect data from the errant table had contaminated the “noise contour” map displayed at public hearings. However, Molinaro said the incorrect data “was not reflected” in the hearing’s noise map or computer program, which he said were based on “computer simulations.’’

The differences between the FAA’s initial and final runway percentages were“very significant,’’ Karaganis said.

“You have a charade going on,’’ said Karaganis. “You have a pattern of deception ...

 “People will say, ‘Gee, you didn’t tell me about this.’ They [the FAA] will say, ‘You didn’t ask.’ . . . Did they mislead the public? Absolutely...

“It’s clear there are people — lots of people — who are suffering adverse impacts who were never told about these impacts and how severe they would be. Those people should be entitled to a fresh analysis of the impact and also alternatives to correct the problem.’’

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