FAA to form panel as Pearson airspace dispute continues

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

Published:

Updated: November 29, 2012, 5:00 PM

 

The Federal Aviation Administration will form a special panel to review the shared airspace between Pearson Field and Portland International Airport, lengthening the uncertainty surrounding access at Vancouver’s historic airfield.

The development comes two months after the FAA floated a proposed rule change that would restrict flights in and out of Pearson. The city of Vancouver and others pushed back, forcing federal officials to delay a planned Oct. 1 implementation. Now with a Safety Risk Management Panel set to convene in December, it appears the dispute won’t be resolved any time soon.

Starting the week of Dec. 10, the process could take anywhere from 45 to 90 days, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

The proposed FAA rule change would have created a “Pearson box” — one mile wide by six miles long — in which Pearson pilots would have to yield to larger airliners approaching PDX from the west.

FAA officials have said the change was designed with safety in mind, aiming to keep multiple aircraft out of the same crowded airspace at the same time. Pearson advocates argue the change would create unnecessary hazards and delays if pilots are forced into a holding pattern over the Vancouver urban area without guidance. The change could also squeeze flight instruction programs at the city-operated airport.

Pearson airport Manager Willy Williamson and others have called for the airfield to receive its own permanent air traffic control tower. But that’s not likely to happen, according to the FAA — unless the city pays for it.

In a letter sent earlier this month, Walt Cochran, FAA vice president of terminal services, said Pearson simply doesn’t have enough operations to justify a permanent FAA tower. But the FAA would support a non-federal tower built, staffed and maintained by the city of Vancouver, according to Cochran.

Again, not likely, Williamson said.

“We flat don’t have the money for it,” he said. “And therein lies the problem.”

Pearson Field did have a temporary tower until earlier this year. The FAA installed it in 2011 while a PDX runway was under reconstruction, then removed it once the project was done.

The upcoming panel will include FAA officials, plus stakeholders from both Vancouver and Portland, Gregor said. The process aims to explore all possible solutions to potential conflicts between Pearson and PDX — something previous panels didn’t do, he said. But the initial “box” idea and resulting controversy riled some local pilots who say the two airports have coexisted on opposite sides of the Columbia River for decades without issue.

Williamson said a comprehensive review panel is probably the right path given the earlier dispute. Ultimately, Pearson’s goal won’t change, he said.

“That is to have safe airspace,” Williamson said. “That is pretty easy to say, and everybody wants that.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.