BY RICHARD FASANELLA & JOSH KAUFMAN
A family relaxes in a Queens backyard, barbecuing in the shade of the trees that can make the borough so beautiful, enjoying a lazy Memorial Day weekend – and trying to ignore the uninvited roar of a 747 jet engine coming in low overhead.
It is the price of life in Queens. Some track the weather by the change in flight patterns over their neighborhoods, others pause classes till the noise clears and learning can continue. One woman living in an Astoria Heights apartment building told the Tribune that she leans out her window and waves at the pilots . . . who wave back.
But as the warm weather returns, Queens residents take to the outdoors, and the noise again becomes the loudest voice of everyday life. The debate around the borough continues, as some political camps maintain that the changes in the “high density” law will bring a quieter Queens and others say we have only just begun to suffer.
THE NEW RULE OF FLIGHT
When President Bill Clinton signed the Aviation Investment And Reform Act for the 21st Century (AIR21) into law on April 5, it was hailed by many in the Queens Congressional Delegation as a major victory.
The bill, in its original form, called for the immediate elimination of the “High Density Rule” — which protects U.S. airports from excessive flight numbers.
But the New York delegation has gotten the rule extended until 2007, which – some say — is the best deal possible because, when FAA reauthorization comes up for renewal in 2005, they will have another shot to extend the rule.
However, to get the support needed for the extention, the delegation had to agree to allow every airline the opportunity to add 20 additional flights. Those possible flights, described as “limited exemptions” to the rule, could only be smaller, regional jets equipped with state-of-the-art quiet engines.
Published figures have estimated that the change could mean as many as 300 to 400 new flights at LaGuardia a day, and although these kinds of figures have Queens civic leaders worried, local legislators maintain that it simply would not pay for every airline to take advantage of every one of the very restrictive slots.
THE PLEASED POLITICIANS
“It is irresponsible to talk about adding hundreds of flights at LaGuardia airport,” said Congressman Joseph Crowley. “As someone who lives in the flight path of the airport, I share the frustration and concern over the noise generated by aircraft. I have advocated on behalf of the community surrounding the airport for the past 13 years, first as a State Assemblyman, and now as a member of Congress. Since coming to Congress, I have been fighting to limit the number of flights at LaGuardia.”
According to Crowley, the Queens Congressional Delegation scored a major round one victory by keeping the high density rule intact for large aircraft. New York’s airports were the only airports to win this extension which limits the number of take-offs and landings of large commercial aircraft at LaGuardia and JFK airports, until 2007.
“Now we must fight round two — stopping the addition of smaller craft flights at LaGuardia,” Crowley added. “We are approaching this in the same manner — as a unified delegation. I am organizing a meeting for the Congressional delegation to sit down with U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, and Claire Shulman to investigate the air noise, environmental, and safety hazards of additional flights.
“I have no intention of resting until we can be assured that no new flights are added at LaGuardia; homes and schools around the airport are sound-proofed; and Congress passes a Stage IV standard for new aircraft — one that is even quieter than the current state-of-the-art Stage III.”
Congressman Anthony Weiner agreed with his colleague, saying that without the delegations efforts to extend the High Density Rule there would have been a much more congested situation at the area airports.
“We in the Queens Congressional Delegation were able to grab victory from the jaws of defeat with AIR 21,” Weiner said. “Residents around LaGuardia know their skies should be quieter still. But without the Queens Delegation-backed provisions of AIR21, unlimited numbers of noisy jumbo jets would be polluting our airspace today.”
Congressman Gary Ackerman, the Dean of the Queens Delegation, called the law “a solid win for the people of Queens and New York State,” adding that “it is evident that the Queens Congressional Delegation knows how to dance in Washington.”
THE ANGRY VOICES
However, not everyone was as enthusiastic about the new aviation law, with some legislators vowing to fight any additional flights into New York’s airports.
“I voted against H.R. 1000 when it passed the House because it was an irresponsible bill that dramatically increased the annual aviation budget while removing the authority of the House Appropriations Committee — of which I am a member — to ensure that this budget is being spent efficiently and effectively,” said Congresswoman Nita Lowey..
Even elected officials at the City level, have expressed their displeasure with the potential for increased noise and travel delays that any additional flights could bring to Queens residents.
“I am vehemently opposed to what is about to become the largest expansion of aviation traffic in decades,” said Council Speaker Peter Vallone.
Councilwoman Julia Harrison, a long time representative of the district that encompasses LaGuardia Airport, has also expressed her disdain for the new slot exemptions that will allow more regional jets into the airways above Queens.
“This is not a wise move politically or otherwise, especially in this election year,” Harrison said. “Mrs. Clinton is seeking support from the people who will be most affected by this increase in air traffic. But I guess that doesn’t matter to the President, who’ll be far away from these terminals and runways when he’s retired in Chappaqua.”
The potential for hundreds of new flights have also raised the ire of various community groups concerned about the risks increased air traffic poses to the surrounding environment. Sane Aviation For Everyone (S.A.F.E.), a coalition of independent citizen’s groups and individuals in the New York City metropolitan area, is dedicated to stopping and reversing the environmental and health impact of the area airports and the fair sharing of these impacts.
More worrisome than the noise, public officials and health advocates say, is whether a family’s chronic illnesses — as well as the high rate of asthma in southeast Queens, especially among children — can be blamed on airport pollution.
Such concerns have spurred efforts by public and private agencies to get to the root of the problem.
Betty Braton, Chairperson of Community Board 10, recently held a rally at JFK airport to express growing community concerns regarding the possibility of increasing airport traffic.
“The City seems to be encouraging additional flights and increased cargo activity but does not seem to be addressing the potential impact that these activities can have on the surrounding neighborhoods,” Braton said.
“When economic development is spurred it brings impacts on the surrounding area that are not always positive for those areas,” Braton added, refferring to health problems experienced by local residents such as asthma.
AUTHORITY’S GOOD NEWS
William R. DeCota, director of the Aviation Department of the Port Authority, spoke to 75 community and business leaders of Long Island City on future improvements being made to John F. Kennedy (JFK) and LaGuardia (LGA) Airports at a meeting sponsored by Modell’s Sporting Goods and the Long Island City Business Development Corporation (LICBDC).
“Air travel is not what it used to be,” said DeCota. “It’s not just on airplanes you can’t get an olive in your martini. Customer satisfaction with airline travel ranks below their perception of being audited by the IRS.”
The new plans of the Port Authority (PA) which operates JFK and LGA has been formulated to put “airports in the midst of a renaissance” and will hopefully imprint the PA’s “vision of unparalleled global access” on New York City, said DeCota.
To help diffuse air traffic, global positioning satellite (GPS) technologies are being studied. Preliminary reports indicate that GPS technology can be used to better coordinate air traffic by precisely routing planes.
UPDATING THE LAY OF THE LAND
Renovations and improvements targeted for JFK have received $9.2 billion in funding. Construction has begun on redeveloping terminals 8 and 9 in JFK — transforming them from 40-year old antiquated terminals into a state-of-the-art 58 gate terminal with all the amenities, said DeCota. $5.1 billion of JFK’s funding has been targeted to redevelop each of the nine passenger terminals in the airport.
The terminals at LGA will also be rebuilt from the bottom up, and by 2010, every terminal in both airports will be reconstructed. LGA is the “Nation’s premier business airport,” according to DeCota.
Parking facilities at LGA will receive a $25 million facelift this fall. Until a year or two ago, there was no long term parking at LGA, said DeCota.
The roadways that wind through JFK and LGA have been known to be confusing. To address this problem, extensive plans to reconfigure, extend, and reconstruct miles of roadway are currently in the works, said DeCota.
Finally, Phase One of the rail project is nearly complete, DeCorta adding, which the PA believes will improve Kennedy Airport’s negative impact on local traffic. By 2002, a high-speed rail link between midtown Manhattan and JFK will be operational, said DeCota.