Air traffic at Salt Lake City International Airport grew more than 3 percent last year, making it one of only four airports nationally to experienced increased traffic since the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
But that's not good news for many Salt Lake County and even Davis County residents who live on the eastern benches of the Wasatch Front.
The airport's growth has caused the Federal Aviation Administration to rethink flight paths over Salt Lake and southern Davis counties. Now, instead of one "downwind" — a flight pattern commercial jets use before beginning their final approach to the airport — FAA officials are considering adding another downwind over the eastern benches, a potential move that is causing consternation at Salt Lake City Hall.
"Suffice it to say that both the airport director and the mayor's office have serious concerns about the FAA proposal," city spokesman Josh Ewing said. "They have specific concerns about the environment and the need."
While the final configuration of this additional downwind pattern hasn't been definitively determined, Clark Desing, air traffic manager at Salt Lake City International, said it will probably be along 800 East to 1200 East through Salt Lake County. Along this stretch, jets would travel about 7,000 to 8,000 feet above the valley floor, Desing said. By way of comparison, when jets cross 4500 South on approach to Salt Lake City International, they are 2,000 to 2,500 feet above ground.
In addition to the extra downwind, flight routes into Salt Lake County would be reconfigured to a "four corners" plan where planes would come in from four points; the southeast, southwest, northwest and northeast. That southeast route is of most concern because it would put planes over Alta and Snowbird ski resort at 15,000 to 23,000 feet above sea level, which would be about 5,000 to 13,000 feet above the high mountain resorts.
Also, the northeast corner route, as well as the eastern downwind pattern, would likely have some ill effects on Davis County.
"It is something we have a concern about," Farmington Mayor Dave Connors said. "It has to do with how east those flight paths are going to be, whether they're going to be directly above the residential areas there in the foothills."
The FAA is embarking on an environmental impact study, which will determine the effects any potential air traffic reconfiguration would have on the environment, including noise pollution and consideration that jets could trigger avalanches over Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Tuesday night, a few dozen Salt Lake residents were able to give public comment about the proposed air traffic reconfiguration, dubbed the Northern Utah Airspace Initiative. The comment will be considered when the FAA determines the scope of its EIS.
There are other options besides placing a downwind on the city's east side. One alternative is to have an east-side downwind but use it less frequently than the western downwind. Another choice calls for a four-corners design but with only the western downwind. Or the FAA could just keep the status quo.
Some of the comment Tuesday at the City Center Marriott in downtown Salt Lake City came from east-side homeowners concerned that their property values will decline if jets start flying overhead. Others were worried about ill environmental effects. More wondered why the FAA doesn't consider expanding the Ogden and Provo airports to accommodate some of Salt Lake's excess commercial jet traffic. Some were concerned that east-side turbulence associated with the Wasatch Mountains would cause jets to be more likely to crash.
Along with Anderson, some Salt Lake City Council members wonder if the reconfiguration is needed.
"I'm really concerned about it," Council member Dave Buhler said. "These residents didn't buy their homes in a flight path and frankly I wonder what impact it would have on property values."
At Rep. Jim Matheson's office, spokeswoman Alyson Heyrend said the Utah Democrat hadn't formed a position on the reconfiguration but was looking forward to an open process with public comment.
Currently, there are negligible delays into and out of Salt Lake International. An average delay into the airport is three minutes, said Sam Bowden, an FAA consultant. A typical outbound delay is five minutes, Bowden said. The FAA doesn't even measure delays until they reach 15 minutes, FAA Airspace Branch Manager Carla Mawhorter said.
Still, air traffic control managers warn that jet flights into Salt Lake are projected to increase about 20 to 30 percent in the next 10 years. If those projections proved true there would be a need for reconfiguration. FAA administrators said now is the time to plan for the reconfiguration, not in 10 years when it's too late.
Those wishing to comment on the "scoping" process for the EIS can send written comments to Northern Utah Airspace Initiative, PO Box 22867, AMF, Salt Lake City, UT 84122.
The scoping period — during which public comment is taken — for the EIS will end May 15. During the following year the FAA will develop the EIS and will release a draft EIS by spring 2004. There will then be public comment taken on the draft until fall 2004. Then a final record of the FAA's reconfiguration decision will come in winter of 2004 or 2005, Desing said.
Some FAA traffic controllers at Tuesday's meeting felt that, despite the public process, if the traffic is reconfigured, environmentalists or angry east-siders will sue to stop flights over the Wasatch Front's east side.
For more information log on to www2.faa.gov/ats/nar/nw_mt/slc.