Despite Centennial Airport officials highlighting the importance of the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, attending its community meetings to help address resident concerns, the federal agency had no representation at the March community noise roundtable gathering.
For months, residents have been attending meetings to raise concerns about increased air traffic, noise and lead pollution impacting the community, specifically those living north of Arapahoe Road. Some even formed a group, Quiet Skies Over Arapahoe County, to advocate for changes to be made to address safety and noise concerns at Centennial Airport.
“I’m very disappointed that the FAA didn’t show,” said Audra Dubler, a leader of Quiet Skies Over Arapahoe County, during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“Our frustration continues along with the growing concerns for the health and safety of our … families and community,” said Lisa Mauvais, a resident living near Englewood.
U.S. Rep. Jason Crow and U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper signed a letter in December encouraging the FAA to attend the monthly meetings in person.
Michael Valencia, general manager of the FAA Denver District, attended the Feb. 1 meeting in person. He was joined virtually by three other FAA officials.
During that meeting, representatives of the Centennial Airport and FAA disagreed on why more aircraft are flying over nearby neighborhoods.
The FAA explained its analysis found that the primary factor was increased aircraft volume in the traffic pattern, causing the traffic pattern to elongate. However, Centennial Airport Executive Director and CEO Mike Fronapfel said the airport disagrees with that initial analysis.
The airport thinks after a 2021 mid-air collision occurred, the FAA local control tower changed the way it managed the aircraft in the pattern, resulting in the pattern getting extended more frequently over the community, Fronapfel said. He also noted that any solution has to involve the FAA being at the table.
Leslie Lardie, senior advisor to the FAA’s regional administrator of the northwest mountain region, said in a Feb. 21 email that due to the “technical nature of the discussion, an FAA representative attended the February meeting in person.”
“For future meetings, any attendance from the FAA will be virtual, unless the FAA representative determines, upon reviewing the meeting agenda, it is necessary to attend in person,” Lardie wrote.
She noted that the FAA agreed to provide written responses to questions posed by the airport and community.
“The formal written response is in review at this time,” Lardie wrote.
Fronapfel said that the following day, Feb. 22, the FAA sent another email that said the FAA would not be in attendance at the March meeting.
Brad Pierce, the chair of the roundtable, suggested that perhaps he and Fronapfel should “reach out to the FAA again and express our frustration that they’re not here.”
Lone Tree City Councilmember Mike Anderson, a member of the roundtable, said the community outreach committee has identified FAA engagement and participation as a priority.
“To solve problems, we need the FAA involved. Even if we don’t like what they say, we’ve got to have the conversations and try to find solutions,” Anderson said.
Formation of two committees
During the meeting, Fronapfel proposed the formation of two committees to help address resident concerns — a community-focused committee and a technical working group that would involve the FAA.
At the last Arapahoe County Public Airport Authority Board of Commissioners meeting, it was decided that a more community-focused committee that involved the Quiet Skies Over Arapahoe County group would be formed, Fronapfel said.
Fronapfel said he thinks it would make sense to make that committee an official subcommittee of the noise roundtable.
“The FAA does recognize the roundtable as the community's representation on noise issues and environmental issues at the airport, and so if we can make that a subcommittee of … the noise roundtable, that would be — that'd be ideal,” Fronapfel said. “We'll kind of propose that in between this meeting and the next roundtable meeting, and come back to you guys on a request for that.”
Another committee Fronapfel asked the noise roundtable to consider forming is a sub-roundtable technical working group to explore and recommend solutions to the issues caused by the extended training pattern traffic.
Based on the airport’s understanding, the purpose of the working group is to address an issue that’s been identified at the airport and assign technical people to that working group to try to identify solutions.
“From what we understand, it kind of triggers the FAA — because in their view, it's an official subgroup of the roundtable — and it triggers the FAA to assign assets and assign technical expertise to this group,” Fronapfel said. “I understand, from talking to people in the noise industry, that this has been successful at other airports.”
The group would likely include FAA representatives, Centennial Airport officials, noise roundtable members and subject matter experts.
“We're obviously working really hard to find any kind of path to a solution to this problem. And that's one path that we've identified as a possibility, and so we want to leverage that as quickly as we can,” Fronapfel said.
Fronapfel said he and Pierce sent an email Feb. 14 requesting the FAA form and participate in the working group.
“We have not received a response officially from the FAA. They have acknowledged that they received that request, and so we're hoping that they move forward with that,” Fronapfel said.
Members of the noise roundtable approved a motion to form the technical working group as a subcommittee of the noise roundtable.
Centennial Airport’s legal limitations
During the March meeting, aviation attorney Dan Reimer explained the legal limitations the airport faces when it comes to addressing resident concerns.
Reimer, who is the principal of Daniel S. Reimer LLC, provides legal services to several aviation clients including the Grand Junction Regional Airport and the Northern Colorado Regional Airport, Pierce said.
“I have litigated a number of cases concerning airport noise rules,” Reimer said. “What we are faced with is really a development in the law over the last 50 years, from about the 1970s and onward.
“And it is important to think about this as an evolution, because the law as it existed in the 1970s is not the same as the law as it exists today.”
What exists today is the “swiss cheese” theory in which there are multiple, overlapping legal standards that limit the ability of a local airport to implement mandatory restrictions, Reimer explained.
“All the layers added together make it very, very hard for local communities and airport operators to restrict aircraft operations or aeronautical activities in the interest of noise or safety,” he said.
One of the legal issues that dominates this field is the topic of preemption, he said, and that is the balance between federal government regulation and what local airports can do.
“The federal government has assumed for itself exclusive jurisdiction over the regulation of airspace, the regulation of pilots, and the regulation of aircraft,” he said. “No entity — the airport operator, the local government, the state — can restrict the movement of aircraft in flight. That is within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government and shared with the pilot in command of the aircraft.”
Reimer said the airport proprietor, which in Centennial Airport’s case is the Arapahoe County Public Airport Authority, may or may not be able to put conditions on the use of an airport, such as a nighttime curfew.
Implementing such types of conditions, however, can be difficult given the passage of the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, also referred to as ANCA.
ANCA resulted in some louder types of aircraft being phased out, Reimer explained.
The FAA has a way of rating aircraft based on their noise emissions, labeling the aircraft as stage one, stage two and so on. The higher the stage number, the quieter the aircraft is, Reimer said.
“ANCA was responsible for the phase out of those loud stage two aircraft,” Reimer said. “But as part of the deal for phasing out those louder older stage two aircraft, ANCA made it harder for airport operators to restrict stage three aircraft.”
For airport operators to impose a noise or access restriction on stage three aircraft, certain criteria has to be met to the FAA’s satisfaction, as FAA approval is required, he said.
A noise or access restriction is broadly defined “to be pretty much anything and everything that would restrict the operation of stage three aircraft in an interest of reducing the noise,” Reimer said.
“The FAA has approved zero stage three noise or access restrictions in the 30 plus years since ANCA was enacted,” Reimer said. “So that bar is so high and so intimidating that very few airports and very few communities have even tried.”
There are a few airports around the U.S. that do have required noise standards and mandatory curfews, he noted. However, in each of those instances, those restrictions were in effect before ANCA was enacted and were restrictions that were grandfathered in, he said.
Another layer in the swiss cheese theory is the strings associated with the federal grant funding the airport gets.
“Each and every grant agreement that the airport authority signs with the Federal Aviation Administration comes with — in addition to the normal terms and conditions of any contract — it comes with 39 different assurances on not just how that particular grant project will go, but how the airport will be run,” Reimer said.
One of the grant assurances is that the airport sponsor must make the airport available for public use on reasonable terms and without unjust discrimination, he said.
Other grant assurances state that the airport sponsor may establish conditions to be met by all users of the airport, and may prohibit or limit any type of aeronautical use of the airport if such actions are necessary for safety reasons.
“What the FAA means by that is necessary in our view, in the FAA’s view. So they view themselves to be the final arbiter of what is safe or unsafe to occur at and around airports,” he said. “And they take a pretty dim view about restrictions that are imposed by airport operators in the interest of safety.”
In many instances where airports attempt to implement a restriction, such as not operating jets at a small airport, the FAA will typically look at the case and determine the restriction is not necessary for the safe operation of the airport.
“There have been many instances where airports have said, ‘We're concerned about this activity,’ — jet traffic, whatever it may be. And in a lot of … those instances, the FAA has said, ‘We look at it independently. We don't think that that activity is inherently unsafe. And so we would view it as being unreasonable for the airport operator and therefore a violation of these grant assurances,’” Reimer said.
The overlapping legal standards — such as preemption issues, ANCA, and grant assurances — can limit what power local airports and communities have.
“It's really that, kind of, overlapping set of standards and the interplay among these things that really add to the challenge for local communities who understandably want to reduce the noise exposure associated with an airport,” Reimer said.
“I would say it is fair to say that the FAA is generally viewed as being antagonistic towards mandatory noise rules. I’m not sure there’s a more polite way to say it than that,” he said.
One question raised was what would happen if the Centennial Airport did not accept grant funding or was to violate the grant assurances.
“The grant funding from the federal government is the lifeblood of most airports. It represents millions and millions of dollars in contributions,” Reimer said. “There really is no way, as a practical matter, that an airport like this one could go without the grant funding.”
On top of that, there is an idea that the FAA could not only suspend an airport’s eligibility for future grant payments, but could potentially come against airports for the repayment of past grants that have been issued, he said.
“So that is also what is at stake, and again, another reason why airports typically don't cross the FAA when it comes to these issues. Because your payment under existing grants, your eligibility for future grants, and potentially the repayment (of) past grants is what's at stake,” Reimer said.
Reimer told attendees a key takeaway is that the regulation of aircraft and flight is preempted, and while there is some theoretical ability to restrict aircraft, the ability of airport operators to impose mandatory restrictions on aircraft in the interest of reducing and abating noise is “a nonzero sum that's as close to zero as one can get, based on the track record at airports across country.”
“I’m not saying that airports (are) powerless. I’m not saying that the community is powerless,” he said. “There are a lot of tools that are available and so I am not doomy and gloomy about this particular topic. I think there is a lot of good work that is going on.”
These tools include the airport having voluntary noise abatement measures, offering education and outreach to the pilot community, giving recommendations to the FAA and land use compatibility planning, he said.
“It’s just when it comes to mandatory use restrictions, there is little that can be done,” Reimer said.
Centennial Airport’s legislative goals
Fronapfel told attendees he would be traveling to Washington D.C. this month to communicate the airport’s legislative priorities.
One of the top priorities is emphasizing more local control to address aircraft noise issues.
“Obviously, based on Dan (Reimer)'s legal briefing tonight, it doesn't sound like we have any options under the current structure. However, we can pressure our legislative officials to change the law to accommodate that — and we've done that in the past,” Fronapfel said. “It'd be a tall order and a long, kind of, process … but it's worth pursuing.”
Another priority is replacing leaded fuel with alternative, unleaded fuels and having the federal government provide incentives to accelerate that transition, he said.
“Right now, the stated goal is 2030 from the FAA. We think it can and should happen much, much sooner than that. And so we're going to carry that message to our representatives,” he said.
Other priorities include increasing penalties for pointing lasers at aircraft — which is something Fronapfel said the Centennial Airport has not been immune to — and requesting the increased airport improvement program funding.
“Everybody in the community and in this room are really looking for an immediate solution,” he said. “And we’re also looking for that as well.”