A recent requested meeting with officials from the local Federal Aviation Administration and Lee County Port Authority may have been deemed fruitful by Town officials and members of a local citizen faction deeply involved in efforts to improve flight issues over Fort Myers Beach, but mandatory action is not guaranteed even if national FAA officials approve proposed requests.
Beach Mayor Alan Mandel and Town Manager Don Stilwell, who were joined by Annie and Tom Babcock, Tom Merrill and John Pohland of the Fort Myers Beach Air Intrusion Relief group, reported to be "cautiously optimistic" after the March 7 meeting that was called "extremely informative."
It has been 13 months since Federal Aviation Regulation Part 150 Noise Study recommendations at Southwest International Airport were approved by Lee County Board of Port Commissioners and forwarded to FAA for comment and approval. The findings are expected some time between now and May.
Recommendations include keeping aircraft at or above 3,000 feet over Estero Island, maximizing routing of aircraft over uninhabited Estero Bay rather than the island, establishing Runway 24 as the preferred runway from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. to route aircraft away from the island, increasing altitude for early morning arrivals and promoting use of RNAV optimized descent approach to Runway 6 to reduce noise and improve aircraft efficiency. Noise abatement has been discussed.
"The deadline for the FAA in Washington D.C. to rule on the proposed requests that the Port Authority submitted and the Town supported is April 19," said Mandel. "I think what we are learning is that if the FAA accepts everything in the noise study report, it will still be recommendations for compliance and not a mandatory compliance.
"First of all, we'll have to find out if they accept the whole report as is or some of it or none of it. At that point, we will analyze their statements, see what they requested and continue to work with the port authority and through them the local FAA to implement the recommendations.
"That's why I think it was important to develop this relationship between Town staff and Council and the folks at the tower and the port authority over this year. They are moving forward in that direction, and there are things the (people at the) tower are doing to alleviate this problem."
An FAA decision was previously expected in February and March, but an extension added more time.
"Because of some of the comments received during the public comment period, the FAA had to do some extra work and that pushed back the date," said Mandel. "If it hadn't been for certain questions that came up and issues that were raised during that public comment period, it might have been available by March 18."
Voluntary measures have been taken by local airport officials to reduce late night aircraft from flying over Estero Island when weather conditions allow. Certain airline companies reportedly voluntarily applied consultant recommendations to keep incoming aircraft at or above 3,000 feet over Estero Island and try different flight patterns over the Back Bay instead of incorporating arrival procedures over the island.
Tom Babcock, who provided a public report to Council in December on recommendations regarding the FAA flight tracking system, has been keeping a watchful eye by collecting data and information about the over-flight status. His group stayed later than the Town officials, and discussions turned more technical at that time.
"It was a very open and honest meeting, particularly having the air traffic controllers there," Babcock said. "We shared our data with head controller Jim Dickinson. The data we provided to them becomes a baseline for any improvement."
Babcock stated the meeting as being informative, but an "awakening" as well. He also confirmed any FAA approval will not be a mandatory compliance.
"Fort Myers Beach has been led to believe that many changes will be implemented upon approval of the Part 150 Noise Study. This is not true.," he said. "Things will not get much better than what they are now. Specifically that means: 78 to 80 percent of the aircraft arriving from the west to Runway 6 will fly directly over Fort Myers Beach day and night. During peak air traffic times at noon and dinner time, a railroad track of airplanes will fly over the center of Estero Island every two to three minutes apart. Over one-third of the aircraft will be below 3,000 feet over Fort Myers Beach and are allowed to be as low as 1,500 feet.
The four AIR members took time to individually dissect the meeting and have collectively put together a report to summarize the meeting and provide some conclusions and recommendations. Babcock said the intention of the report is to be utilized as a communications tool, but points out Town officials need to keep the pressure on. This issue has been going on for some 15 years.
"It was confirmed that, for years, accommodations have been made to other communities at the expense of Fort Myers Beach," he said. "It will take a committed effort by our political leaders, with the support of concerned Islanders, to reverse what FMB has lost. There are other improvements that can be pursued. The first, and possibly easiest to accomplish, is to request installation of ILS equipment on Runway 24 for precision landing capability like is available on Runway 6."