A federal appeals court struck down a challenge from Georgetown University and other neighborhood groups against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The complaint concerned redesigned flight paths of arriving and departing planes at Reagan National Airport, increasing air traffic over the Georgetown neighborhood and resulting in increased noise pollution. The three judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled unanimously in favor of the FAA on March 27, stating in their ruling that the university and neighborhood groups submitted their petition too late.
Following the ruling, the FAA released a statement reading about the decision. “Today’s court decision affirms the FAA met the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act and considers final its northern departure routes from Reagan National Airport,” the statement read. “Separately, the FAA remains committed to engaging with the community on other, new agency actions and supporting the DCA Community Noise Working Group to address community noise concerns.”
Under federal law, complainants seeking review of FAA decisions must be submit their petitions within 60 days of the agency’s final orders, foregoing any “reasonable grounds” for delay. The court ruled that the petitioners had no grounds for a delay and the petition was untimely.
The petition from the the university, the Citizens Association of Georgetown, and other neighborhood associations under the umbrella of the DC Fair Skies Coalition, was filed on Aug. 28, 2015. The publication of the new routes on the FAA website occurred on June 25, 2015, but the court said that the approval of the new routes in December 2013, and not the later publication, served as the date of the agency’s final decision.
The court did acknowledge that the agency did not do the best job of making new information available. “The FAA’s efforts to inform the residents of Georgetown about the evaluation of the DC Metroplex were hardly a model of sound agency practice,” the decision read.
However, the court ruled that by publishing notices of the change in the Washington Post, the FAA fulfilled its requirements to inform the public.
Richard Hinds, counsel for the Citizens Association of Georgetown, and DC Fair Skies chairman Ed Solomon released a statement deriding the court’s ruling that this publication served as proper notification.
“[The Court ruled] so despite the lack of notice to any elected DC Government Official and the efforts by the FAA to ensure no one in the community was aware of the plan to make the LAZIR route the flight path for all northbound departures,” the statement read. “In this case, the FAA made diligent efforts to ensure no one in DC was aware of the new flight path until it was an accomplished fact.”
University spokesperson Rachel Pugh wrote in an email to the Voice that the university was disappointed in the outcome of the case. “We remain concerned about the increased noise levels in Georgetown and our surrounding neighborhoods and will work with our community partners to decide the best path forward,” Pugh wrote.
Before the change, planes taking off from the northern end of the airport, towards Georgetown, were meant to fly in a straight line in a northwesterly direction until reaching the Georgetown reservoir. In practice, flights ended up loosely following the Potomac in an attempt to reduce noise while flying over populated areas. The FAA saw a new path as a way to increase efficiency and safety as a part of its NextGen initiative to replace radar with satellite navigation.
GUSA originally joined the university and neighborhood groups as a complainant, but the petition was amended a month after submission to remove them.