Last spring, city officials thought this month was when air traffic controllers would begin to route jets bound for Lakeland Linder Airport over the Polk Parkway, reducing noise over neighborhoods. But city commissioners learned today that implementation of the noise mitigation plan is probably a year away.
“This is a serious disappointment, and that’s about all we can say,” Mayor Bill Mutz said during an agenda preview meeting this morning.
The delay came about because the Federal Aviation Administration is asking the airport to use an instrument approach for incoming traffic rather than the visual approach that airport officials had worked on over the spring and summer. In essence, the city has to scrap its original proposal and start working on a new one.
Because the “highly specialized project requires the assistance of subject matter experts and specific equipment,” according to Airport Director Gene Conrad, the city plans to hire a contractor approved by the FAA to prepare the instrument landing and noise abatement plan.
On Monday, city commissioners will be asked to approve a $201,150 agreement with Hughes Aerospace Corp. of The Woodlands, Texas, to develop the instrument approach and procedures for noise abatement. The expenditure is already included in the airport budget, Conrad said.
Work on the plan should start immediately once the contract is approved, Conrad said. He estimated it will take a year to develop the instrument approach plan, get FAA approval, undergo environmental reviews and conduct flight tests, something that Hughes is equipped to do with its own aircraft.
There was an option to use FAA staff to develop the plan, but that was projected to take three to five years, and Lakeland isn’t willing to wait that long, Conrad said.
Despite the frustrating delay, Conrad said the instrument plan will offer several advantages:
— It can be used more often. The visual approach would have been available only when visibility is five miles or more.
— The plan will include a standard instrument departure component that will establish specific corridors for out-going traffic and should allow aircraft to rise quickly to 3,000 or 4,000 feet rather than the 2,000 feet they are now held to for the first several miles when they take off over Grasslands or toward Plant City.
Conrad acknowledged that the delay is frustrating to him, the City Commission and the many residents who have registered complaints about the noise from Amazon’s cargo jets and other loud aircraft.
But he emphasized that the FAA — not the airport — has exclusive authority over flight paths and that traffic over Lakeland is complex since it overlaps with Tampa’s and Orlando’s crowded air zones.
Airport officials started working on the visual approach in March and submitted a feasibility study to the FAA in August.
Mutz had told commissioners in the spring that he was optimistic the FAA would approve the plan in October for implementation around now.
But that’s not what happened. At an Oct. 5 meeting, the FAA said the visual approach would be a “last resort” and an instrument approach is needed.
“It would it have made more sense for them to tell us earlier don’t go this route, go that path. But that’s not what happened unfortunately,” Conrad told commissioners.