Officials from Arlington County and Alexandria urged the Council of Governments (COG) yesterday to seek cancellation of a proposed test of new National Airport flight paths that would scatter jet noise over a more populated area. The officials say the paths are not safe.
At COG's monthly meeting yesterday, representatives from the two Virginia suburbs clashed with D.C. City Council member H.R. Crawford (D-Ward 7), who said that the test, which COG requested in 1981, has been fully analyzed and should be implemented without further delay.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which owns and operates National Airport, has said the proposed paths would be safe. But at COG's monthly meeting yesterday, Alexandria City Council member Margaret Inman challenged the FAA's conclusion, citing last year's crash of an Air Florida jetliner, which she called "a staggering event . . . that has shaken our concept of safety at National Airport."
COG, which is composed of representatives from area governments, put off formal action on the test until July. The test would allow jets taking off from National to turn off the Potomac River near Rosslyn and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, rather than flying farther along the river.
Some FAA officials say privately that the river is the best departure route for jets, but that more than adequate safety would be maintained if the new routes are put into effect.
During yesterday's debate, Crawford and Prince George's County Council Chairman Frank Casula said that COG went on record in 1981 favoring the test and should not rethink that decision unless there is new information. "We've had enough analysis, and we've had enough studies," Crawford said, "and now we should move ahead."
Fairfax County Supervisor Nancy Falck, who represents the Dranesville District, said that the real issue with National Airport is traffic levels and that COG should lower them. "If we had no noise impact to scatter, we would be a lot more comfortable," she said.
The FAA is now accepting written comment from the public on the test. If it decides to proceed, it will probably be put into effect beginning this fall for up to 90 days.
The goal is to "scatter" noise over a large area, rather than concentrating it in communities along the river. The FAA estimates the new paths would expose 320,000 more area residents to significant noise, while giving relief to some neighborhoods that now get the worst noise.
Opposition has centered in Alexandria and Arlington, where highly populated areas would get new overflights. Opponents have argued that this would be unfair to people who deliberately bought homes away from flight paths and that airplanes should be kept over the more sparsely populated river corridor.
During yesterday's debate, opponents of the scatter plan concentrated on alleged safety hazards of the test, which would allow jets to turn off the river at 1,500 feet. Inman said that the Air Florida crash, which killed 78 people, exposed safety deficiencies at National and that the scatter test might further downgrade safety.
"The planes will be making lower altitude turns, which in itself is a safety factor," Inman stated, saying she had consulted with Alexandria Mayor Charles Beatley, a retired airline pilot. Arlington County Board member Mary Margaret Whipple of Arlington voiced the same opinion.
Opponents have also said the plan would complicate the job of air traffic controllers, take traffic away from the water--which they contend would be the best place to put down a crippled plane--and run planes past more obstructions such as tall buildings and TV towers.
Eric Bernthal, president of the Coalition on Airport Problems, which helped to devise the plan and supports it, has dismissed safety objections. Jets already fly past many obstructions, the river in most places is too curvy for ditching and the best thing is to get planes up and out of the area quickly, Bernthal argued.