A recent Federal Aviation Administration proposal to decrease building height near airports has drawn battle lines between real estate developers and airlines, with critics claiming the proposal would slash property values and affect thousands of acres of land.
The proposal would change the way the agency evaluates applications to build new structures or modify existing structures near 388 U.S. airports in case of emergencies during one-engine takeoffs. Current regulations limit building heights based on the clearance needed by planes with two operating engines.
Future buildings constructed nearly 2 miles from the end of a runway and within a designated flight path would have a maximum allowable height of 160 feet instead of the current limit of 250 feet, according to an analysis by the Weitzman Group, a New York real estate consulting firm.
Business leaders know airports attract and catalyze commercial development, but they fear office towers and condominium projects will stagnate while developers and zoning boards try to figure out what the FAA’s proposal would mean for their communities. In Tempe, Ariz., Chamber of Commerce President Mary Ann Miller believes almost any new building in the city’s downtown would face restrictions because of its location near the edge of Phoenix Sky Harbor’s runways. “Coming out of a very long recession, we hate the idea of stopping some growth,” she said.
Losing an engine during takeoff may be rare, but as more skyscrapers, cellphone towers, and other tall structures get built near airports, planes have fewer and fewer emergency flight paths. In 2009 while departing New York-LaGuardia, US Airways flight 1549 lost both its engines when a flock of birds flew into the plane. The captain had to put down in the Hudson River when he judged a safe return to the airport impossible.
But critics of the new policy abound. Speaking to The Washington Post, Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., said airports and airlines’ support is pure self-interest: loading more passengers and cargo onto planes but still having a way over obstacles.
But airlines already self-impose reductions to the number of passengers or the amount of cargo carried by planes taking off from Honolulu, Los Angeles, Miami, Phoenix, and Washington, D.C.—among others—to be light enough to clear obstructions or avoid restricted airspace if faced with only one working engine.
Though current tall buildings would be unaffected by the proposal, the real estate and wireless industries want it to be submitted to a formal rulemaking process. FAA officials counter that the proposal is simply a “policy change,” which eliminates rulemaking requirements.
A bill recently introduced by Moran, whose Northern Virginia district includes densely developed areas around Reagan National Airport, would force the FAA to go through Congress. In his a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Moran and three other lawmakers said the proposal would have a “detrimental effect on the development and marketability of airports as well as hinder job creation and shrink the tax base of local governments.”