The 10-week shutdown of the North Parallel runway at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) this fall diverted an estimated 28,000 flights
over metro neighborhoods previously spared the noise and pollution of jetliners. Taking the brunt of the impact were Minneapolis residents and
businesses south of downtown, along with parts of Bloomington, St. Paul and Eagan.
Through a limited distribution of flyers and through its website, the South Metro Airport Action Council (SMAAC) invited citizens to report undue
annoyances and note any air travel delays. A partial analysis of the responses brought out three general points:
1) During the first few weeks of the runway closure, arrivals often used the new runway (R17), and the crosswind runway (R22) as prevailing winds were from the south. Jets descended over downtown Minneapolis and followed Cedar Avenue to land on Runway 17. Numerous residents reported flights over Phillips, Powderhorn and Bancroft neighborhoods. They said children couldn’t do their homework; babies and nursing home residents couldn’t nap; and business meetings were disturbed. An office worker downtown was surprised to see airliners from her 42nd floor window.
Runway 22 arrivals were also noted over Highland Park in St. Paul and Morris Park, Keewaydin and Ericsson in Minneapolis. Both SMAAC and MAC recorded complaints that heavy departure traffic—from the South Parallel runway— was spread over a large area on either side of the noise corridor in Eagan.
2) When winds shifted in October and the crosswind runway was less useful, operations were often limited to two runways, the South Parallel and the new runways. In this mode, takeoffs were over Minneapolis and Richfield and landings over Apple Valley, Bloomington and Eagan. Noise complaints
increased in Southwest Minneapolis. Poor weather contributed to delays, and people noted an increase in evening flights.
3) Several people chose to complain to their City Council member, only to find that the City had either tacitly approved the overflights, or at least failed to use its only meaningful opportunity to propose alternatives.
SMAAC’s Interpretation Move-ment of aircraft on the ground is staff-intensive and gate ramp management was slowed due to airline personnel replacements and reductions. Since the Delta/NWA merger, fewer pilots are accustomed to the MSP taxiways, gate locations and procedures. Longer term, it remains uncertain if the runway repairs will restore enough capacity for hub operations at the pre-recession rates if schedules are increased for a larger hub.
It makes little difference if the above factors increased 2009 weather delays slightly or if weather increased ground traffic management problems. But there were unusually long delays at MSP during the project. SMAAC believes that ground and air traffic control systems are at least strained
by high rates. However, FAA R&D projects and system maintenance and improvements have suffered from budget cuts and inattention since 2001.
“Technology isn’t going to be the answer to MSP delays,” one pilot messaged, “and the goal should be more safety even if delays increase.”
Using the new North-South runway (17-35) over Minneapolis could have been avoided by rescheduling flights away from the usual peak hours and high rates. SMAAC suggested this more than once to MAC or FAA—to no avail. Although rescheduling would have interfered with the Delta/NWA hub, MSP nonetheless experienced many delays and a few canceled flights during the 2009 runway shutdown just as it did when the South Parallel was closed for partial resurfacing in 2007.
Meanwhile, Congress is stepping up work on a languishing Passenger Bill of Rights because air travelers were stuck on airliners for hours. Reported MSP delays were reduced by a recent practice—which airlines hate—of the
tower at a weather-impacted airport holding up departures from other airports until the backlog clears. The well publicized mid-August incidents at other airports in fact have led to $175,000 fines by FAA to Continental and Mesaba Airlines for a prolonged passenger delay at Rochester, Minn.