FAA strikes down Naples Stage 2 ban

 - October 8, 2007, 5:36 AM

In what is being hailed by general aviation as a landmark decision, the FAA has ruled that the ban on Stage 2 aircraft at Naples Municipal Airport (APF), Fla., is unlawful. But the Naples Airport Authority (NAA), which operates the airfield, plans to file an appeal in federal court.

Under the final order issued by the FAA on August 25, the NAA will be ineligible for federal Aviation Improvement Program funding until it rescinds the ban. Since March 2002, only certain Stage 2 aircraft that have been granted temporary waivers issued by the NAA are authorized to use the airport.

FAA associate administrator for airports Woodie Woodward upheld the earlier determinations by an FAA hearing officer and the FAA’s director of airport safety and standards that the ban is unlawful. Her decision exhausts the administrative process, and any further review would be limited to a U.S. Court of Appeals. The NAA has until October 24 to file a court appeal.

NBAA commended the FAA for rejecting the prohibition against Stage 2 aircraft. “This decision is significant for the entire aviation community, not just business aviation,” said NBAA president Shelley Longmuir. “By reaffirming the purposes underlying relevant legislation, and by recognizing that business aviation is a good neighbor, the decision goes a long way to ensuring the sanctity of the National Airspace System.”

The battle over noise restrictions at APF goes back to at least 2000, when the city of Naples conducted noise studies as part of an FAR Part 161 process under the Airport Noise and Capacity Act. But the FAA and industry groups maintained that the city’s studies were flawed, based in part on its using 60 decibels as the noise threshold when the FAA’s national standard was 65 decibels.

Although the proposed Stage 2 ban was to have taken effect on Jan. 1, 2001, at the behest of the FAA the NAA postponed enforcement until at least March last year. In the meantime, NBAA, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and other aviation interests filed a lawsuit against the prohibition. A federal judge dismissed that case in late 2001 and the NAA began enforcing the ban the following spring.

NAA executive director Ted Soliday told AIN early last month that the airport authority expected to lose its case with the FAA and already has decided to take further court action. “I don’t anticipate them changing their minds,” he said. “They have already given me direction adequate for me to proceed to appeal.”

Soliday said the authority made a decision that affected less than 1 percent of the operations on the airport, and a cost-benefit analysis had “in every regard” a more than 90-percent benefit. “We did everything in accordance with the law,” he argued. “Now part of it is our integrity with our community.”

According to Soliday, even the local aviation groups in the community supported the decision. He said one of the two Stage 2 operators based at the airport backed the move from the beginning, purchasing a Gulfstream IV and having his GIII retrofitted to Stage 3 standards. The second operator sued the NAA and lost.

“We’ve already lost $3.5 million on legal fees and noise studies for what we thought would satisfy the laws,” said Soliday, who added he is a certified air traffic controller and pilot who has been in aviation for 37 years. “Does it make any sense to turn back now?”

Contrary to what some would believe, the NAA’s executive director said the airport supports aviation to the tune of $30 million in private development of facilities on the airport in the past half-dozen years, as well as a current valuation of another $30 million. “Our position is not one that we are against aviation,” said Soliday. “We are anything but against aviation. In fact, we believe that airports that refuse to recognize the effects that they have on their neighborhoods are the people who are doing aviation harm.”

The crux of the dispute seems to be that the NAA relied on a lower decibel noise contour than the FAA allows. The authority took the position that it could ban the aircraft if residences might be affected within the 60-decibel level, even though the FAA regards the 65-decibel contour as the outer limit of noncompatible uses.

Woodward held that “if an airport could designate any noncompatibility threshold based simply on local government determinations…it could designate noncompatibility thresholds of 60, 55 or lower, effectively closing airports and severely crippling the nation’s air-transport system.”

But Soliday suggested that airport operators who fail to make “tough decisions” like Naples are not doing aviation any good. “We’ve got to be able to coexist with our community,” he said, “and we are doing that.”

Others see it differently. As the first test of the Part 161 process, the case is considered important for the entire aviation community. The FAA’s initial determination that the ban was unlawful was supported in joint briefs filed by NBAA and GAMA. Supporting briefs were also filed by AOPA, the Air Transport Association and the Regional Airline Association.

“We look forward to working with the [NAA] and all other airports in continuing to minimize aircraft noise,” said NBAA’s Longmuir. “The effect of this decision is to make it clear to airport operators that, for their part, they need to comply with federal law.”  

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