FAA to delay controversial airspace restrictions

Foes say changes would cause problems at Pearson Field

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter



The Federal Aviation Administration will delay a controversial change to local airspace restrictions, giving at least a temporary victory to pilots and others who say the move would create big problems at Vancouver’s Pearson Field.

The new rules were set to take effect Monday. But after pressure from the city of Vancouver and congressional leaders, FAA officials agreed to delay implementation by at least 30 days, according to emails sent to the city late Tuesday. Among the biggest players in striking the deal was the office of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said Barbara Ayers, communications manager for the city.

The FAA has proposed new airspace rules that would create a “Pearson Box” limiting access into and out of the historic airfield. Within that area — measuring 1 mile wide by 6 miles long — local pilots would be forced to yield to larger airliners approaching Portland International Airport runways 10L and 10R. That would keep smaller planes either on the ground or in a holding pattern in the air until they get clearance from air traffic controllers.

FAA officials have said the change is intended to keep multiple aircraft out of the same crowded airspace at the same time. But local pilots have said such restrictions would only create unnecessary safety hazards and delays if planes are circling over Vancouver Lake, for example, or another part of the urban area without specific guidelines.

The restrictions would also squeeze flight instruction and other operations at the city-operated airport, Ayers said. The airport and museum bring in a combined $27 million in revenue each year to support hundreds of jobs, according to the city.

“This is not a little business. It’s a big business,” Ayers said. “This is really important to our economy.”

Pilots weren’t the only group that pushed back against the seemingly fast-tracked federal rule change. The Port of Portland, which operates PDX, joined Vancouver and several members of Congress in calling for at least a delay. Local officials plan to continue talks with the FAA and reach out to the public during the extra 30-day window.

“It gives us a chance to hopefully work with the FAA and bring a little bit of logical decision-making into this whole deal,” said Pearson airport manager Willy Williamson.

Vancouver was only formally notified of the proposed rule change last week, Ayers said. The city was prepared to take “more drastic legal measures” were it not for the delay, she said. Ayers didn’t specify what those measures would be.

It’s unclear what outcome the continued negotiations will produce. Williamson supports giving Pearson its own control tower, which would eliminate the need for any new restrictions. Pearson had a temporary control tower while PDX’s Runway 10R was under reconstruction. After the runway reopened, the FAA removed the temporary Pearson tower.

At a meeting with Pearson pilots last week, FAA support manager Laura Schneider told the group the agency’s goal is to help Pearson and PDX operate as safely and efficiently as possible on opposite sides of the Columbia River.

Under current rules, Pearson pilots are basically free to come and go as long as they stay at a proper altitude and maintain contact with traffic controllers at PDX, Williamson said. The two airports have operated just fine for decades, he said, and the FAA proposal on the table now won’t make things any smoother.

“Operating right now the way we are is going to be safer than implementing this box thing,” Williamson said.

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

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