Airspace dispute likely to drag on

Pearson Field, PDX, Vancouver oppose new FAA restrictions

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter




Previously: The Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year proposed new airspace restrictions over Pearson Field. The changes were supposed to take effect Oct. 1, before the agency announced at least a 30-day delay.

What’s new: It appears negotiations will extend well beyond that 30-day window, with FAA officials saying the matter is still under review.

What’s next: The city of Vancouver will continue to negotiate with the FAA over the proposed rule change, though a specific timeline remains unclear.

The dispute over a controversial change to local airspace restrictions likely won't be resolved before a previously announced time frame expires at the end of this month, city of Vancouver officials said Monday.

City leaders have tangled with the Federal Aviation Administration since September, after learning of a proposed rule change that would force pilots from Pearson Field to yield their space to air traffic approaching Portland International Airport from the west. The change would create a "Pearson box" -- one mile wide by six miles long -- limiting access in and out of the historic airfield as larger aircraft make their way to PDX's Runway 10L and 10R.

The rule was originally set to take effect Oct. 1. But after local pilots, the two airports and others pushed back, the FAA announced a delay of at least 30 days.

Now, it appears negotiations are headed well past that window with no resolution.

Local visit proposed

City leaders have been in communication this month with FAA leaders including Walt Cochran, vice president of terminal at the agency's Washington, D.C., headquarters. Local leaders have invited top FAA officials to visit Pearson in person, but that hasn't happened yet, said airport Manager Willy Williamson.

Williamson said he's been encouraged by the dialogue so far, but any resolution at this point is far from a sure thing. The FAA is still reviewing the situation, spokesman Allen Kenitzer said in an email.

"I think we're all a little on edge here," Williamson said. "We definitely don't have any resolution on this."

Regional FAA officials have said the rule change was developed with safety in mind, given the close proximity of Pearson Field and PDX on opposite sides of the Columbia River. The proposal is intended to keep multiple aircraft out of the same crowded airspace at the same time, according to the agency.

Unnecessary hazards

Local pilots have argued such restrictions would only create unnecessary hazards and delays if planes are holding over Vancouver Lake, for example, or another part of the urban area without specific directions. The change could also squeeze flight instruction programs at the city-operated airport.

The Port of Portland, which operates PDX, joined Vancouver and a handful of Northwest congressional leaders in asking for at least a delay in implementation.

Williamson said the city still favors giving Pearson its own air control tower, which he argued gives the field another set of eyes and brings the airport in line with federal guidelines. Local pilots now maintain contact with air traffic controllers at PDX, but are basically free to come and go as long as they maintain proper altitudes.

The FAA installed a temporary control tower at Pearson in 2011 while a PDX runway was under reconstruction. The tower was removed earlier this year, when the PDX runway reopened.

"The bottom line is, the control tower is the only answer that fixes all the problems," Williamson said.

The FAA has said it will involve all affected stakeholders before it implements any rule change.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541;;