Court of appeals upholds Stage 2 jet ban at Naples

 - October 6, 2006, 7:43 AM

Both sides claimed a measure of victory in the June 3 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, but the Naples (Fla.) Airport Authority (NAA) is crowing much louder than representatives of general aviation. The court decision upheld the NAA ban on Stage 2 jets–a ban disputed by the FAA and a host of aviation advocacy groups, including NBAA.

Though aviation advocacy groups are putting on a glass-half-full face, many fear that the ruling will set a precedent. When the federal court reversed the FAA’s rejection of the ban last month, it opened the door for other airports to impose restrictions–without the FAA’s blessing– and without necessarily losing federal funding, supposedly the teeth of the FAA’s enforcement power in such cases. As a result of the ruling, Naples stands to get some $3.2 million that the FAA has withheld since 2002.

The FAA has contended for several years that an FAR Part 161 (noise) study conducted by the Florida city (previously required before noise restrictions could be imposed) was flawed and that the airport’s ban was inconsistent with the terms of the 1982 Airport and Airway Improvement Act and the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990.

The former maintains that airports must remain “available for public use on reasonable conditions and without unjust discrimination.” The agency’s primary sticking point with the NAA study was its use of 60 decibels–rather than the FAA-standard 65-dB noise level–to determine which residential areas were vulnerable to aircraft noise.

FAA Retains Authority

In a two-part decision, the court agreed that the FAA retains the overall authority to withdraw airport improvement funding if it believes there is unreasonable discrimination. (That’s why aviation advocacy groups see the glass as half full.) AOPA said the court “split the baby” by agreeing that the FAA has full authority to remove funding from airports that implement noise restrictions the agency deems unreasonable. AOPA v-p of airports Bill Dunn said that segment of the decision ought to warn other airports that they face removal of funding should they attempt to override the FAA’s authority.

But that is hardly a new revelation. Chicago Mayor Richard Daley repaid all outstanding federal funding before bulldozing Meigs Field. What’s new in the Naples case is the court’s determination that NAA provided “ample evidence” that the Stage 2 ban was justified–even without benefit of an acceptable Part 161 study. The court further pointed out that most of the city’s evidence went unrebutted by the FAA, and the agency has chosen not to challenge the court ruling.

There is already evidence that the Naples ruling has emboldened airport authorities and local politicians in other cities. The Los Angeles World Airport Authority, which recently commissioned a multimillion-dollar Part 161 study, has said publicly it is exploring the feasibility of a Stage 2 ban at Van Nuys Airport though there was no overt mention of such a ban in the initial Part 161 study plans.

In New Jersey, longtime Teterboro Airport critic Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) joined the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in an initiative to curtail operations at the business aviation airport–one of the two busiest in the world along with Van Nuys.

NBAA president Ed Bolen reiterated that the court ruling had positive overtones in its reaffirmation of the FAA’s authority but cautioned, “NBAA respectfully disagrees with the court’s conclusion that the FAA lacked evidence supporting its determination that the Stage 2 ban at Naples Airport is unreasonable.”

For his part, Naples Airport Authority executive director Ted Soliday said, “We are overjoyed.”