The FAA has directed all southbound Horizon Air Q400 turboprop planes taking off from Sea-Tac to the north to make an automated turn immediately after takeoff almost due west over Burien. The flight-path change has spurred protests and a lawsuit from the city over airplane noise.
The strongest protests from people affected by airplane overflights come when a sudden increase in noise is imposed apparently by fiat. That’s what has happened in Burien.
In July 2016, without any notice to either the Port of Seattle or the city of Burien, the FAA directed all southbound Horizon Air Q400 turboprop planes taking off to the north to make an automated turn almost due west immediately after takeoff.
The intent was to move these planes quickly out of the way of the faster jets, helping controllers efficiently clear the airspace and avoid delays.
Instead of waiting for commands from air traffic controllers and then turning west at varying points, suddenly all these planes were flying due west on the same straight shot directly over Burien out to Puget Sound.
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This instruction applied only when the wind was from the north, which is about 30 percent of the time, mostly in the summer. And it applied only to the Q400s, about 2 percent of Sea-Tac departures.
Still, on those days, that means 35 to 40 of the planes follow a narrow westbound track, mostly during peak hours, said Terry Plumb, a retired Seattle Department of Transportation project manager who lives in the Seahurst neighborhood of Burien.
“We always had quiet,” said Plumb. “That’s why people live here.” Though he believes the new noise has knocked 20 percent off the value of his home, he says he’ll move if nothing changes.
His neighbor, retired Alaska Airlines pilot Larry Cripe, can usually hear the wind whisper in the trees behind his million-dollar house, which sits on a steep bluff overlooking Puget Sound. But not on days when the planes take off to the north.
“If this airport continues to grow unbridled, we’re going to destroy Puget Sound and everything we value here,” Cripe said.
Cripe, Plumb and others formed an activist group, the Quiet Skies Coalition. And the city of Burien filed suit last year asking the U.S. Court of Appeals to review the FAA decision. The federal Department of Justice forced a suspension of the new automated turns while the FAA did an environmental-impact assessment.
The victory didn’t last.
In April, the FAA reinstated the automated turns, excluding only nighttime flights, after its analysis concluded that the new flight pattern would produce “very minor changes in noise exposure levels.”
“It seems the FAA is working for the airlines,” Cripe said, calling this “an outright abuse of power.”
While well-off residents are the most vocal and active in protesting, Burien has many immigrant and lower-income residents, some of whom are more fatalistic.
East of Cripe’s home overlooking Puget Sound, Burien’s streets are flanked by modest houses.
Sandra Aguila has lived in one of those houses for two years, after moving from Des Moines, where she found the noise of airplanes overhead much worse.
In Burien, “this is one of my lesser problems,” Aguila said. “I ignore them.”
Paul Marquis, an immigrant from the Caribbean who has lived in his home in Burien for more than 40 years, likewise wasn’t much concerned.
“What you cannot change, you ignore,” Marquis said. “The rain is going to fall. You accept it.”
Still, dozens of residents attended a public meeting in Burien last month. Many complained of the FAA’s lack of responsiveness. The city’s outside lawyer updated the meeting on the lawsuit, which continues.
Asked for comment on the Burien flight-path changes, the FAA declined, citing the pending litigation.