New Charlotte airport runway restrictions cut capacity

elyportillo@charlotteobserver.comAugust 27, 2013 

New federal restrictions on one of Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s four runways have cut landing capacity by more than 11 percent and could accelerate plans to build a new runway, officials said Monday.

The new Federal Aviation Administration rules implemented last month forbid the airport from landing planes on its diagonal, or crosswind, runway during most of the day. The FAA said the runway configuration posed a safety hazard because of intersecting flight plans for planes in the area.

The airport’s new flight paths for landing planes have spurred more noise complaints, as jets approach Charlotte Douglas flying over neighborhoods they didn’t before. The diagonal runway was used almost exclusively for landings, and let aircraft fly over Interstate 85 while approaching the airport, avoiding flying over houses as much as possible.

Now, planes can only use the airport’s three parallel runways, which are lined up north-south, to land.

“There are folks that are now experiencing aircraft over-flights ... who weren’t getting them before,” said Jack Christine, the airport’s interim deputy aviation director, at Charlotte City Council. “They’re getting something they haven’t seen before.”

The FAA restrictions have reduced the airport’s hourly landing capacity from 96 flights an hour to 85.

“The airlines’ operation is hampered by the ability to not get as many aircraft on the ground,” Christine said.

Charlotte Douglas ranks as the sixth-busiest airport in the nation in terms of takeoffs and landings, with an average of 733 daily departures.

US Airways, which operates almost 90 percent of the airport’s daily flights, is still studying the effects of the restriction on its flights.

The airport’s most recent runway, the third parallel, opened in 2010. Charlotte Douglas has long planned to build a new, 12,000-foot, fourth parallel runway.

On Monday, airport officials said the time has come to start the formal planning process for the new runway, with a capacity study to begin later this year, followed by environmental studies and design planning.

The projected opening date for the fourth parallel runway now is 2017.

But Christine said the airport could build the new runway more quickly if the capacity study shows it’s needed to keep with growth now that the diagonal runway is mostly closed.

Other options for adding back lost capacity could include new express taxiways for planes to move more quickly on the ground or different landing and takeoff procedures, Christine said.

“We’re not sitting still here,” Christine said. “We’re still growing. We need to not just get back what we lost.”

The estimated cost of the fourth parallel runway is $92.5 million, to be paid with federal grants, airport revenue bonds and the proceeds of a $3 fee currently charged to all passengers.

Charlotte City Manager Ron Carlee said expanding the airport is important, “so we do preserve our position not just as a stabilized hub, but one that continues to grow.”

City Council member David Howard said it’s especially important now to keep US Airways happy. The airline’s possible merger with American Airlines was thrown into uncertainty earlier this month by a federal lawsuit seeking to block it on antitrust grounds.

US Airways CEO Doug Parker has said the merged airline would add flights at Charlotte Douglas, which would become its second-busiest hub.

“With things the way they are, the last thing we need is to have any issue with US Airways to look at their operations at all,” Howard said.

The FAA said last month that Charlotte Douglas can no longer use the airport’s diagonal runway during most of its operating hours, except for emergencies. When the first commercial flights come at around 5:30 a.m. and use one of the parallel runways, the FAA now shuts down the diagonal runway until commercial flight operations end, usually after 11 p.m.

Safety concerns over the possibility of intersecting flight paths led to the decision, the FAA said. In a report last month, the National Transportation Safety Board identified several instances when planes got dangerously close because of so-called “converging” flight paths, including one such incident at Charlotte Douglas last year.

Now, the FAA restrictions have rerouted planes over more densely populated areas around the airport. The airport’s diagonal runway was also used for noise abatement.

Irv Gleaner lives near Brawley School Road in Mooresville, on a peninsula in Lake Norman. After 35 years living under the approach path to Philadelphia International Airport, he said he researched flight paths around Charlotte Douglas to avoid moving under any when he relocated last year.

“I said I’d had enough of this,” he said of the noise from Philadelphia International, where he was about 10 miles from the runway. “I said I never want to move in a noisy area again,” Gleaner said. His house now is about 23 miles north of Charlotte Douglas.

“All of a sudden we go from no planes at all to all this traffic,” Gleaner said. He said the noise from planes coming in over his house at night and in the early morning is audible even with the windows closed. “It’s a shame.”

Noise complaint at the airport?

You can file a complaint about plane noise with Charlotte Douglas community program manager Kevin Hennessey at kmhennessey@cltairport.com or 704-359-4327.

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