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FAA restricts Charlotte Douglas runway over safety concerns

The Federal Aviation Administration has ordered Charlotte Douglas International Airport to stop using one of its four runways during most of the day due to safety concerns, which could lead to delays and more noise over nearby neighborhoods.

Officials first disclosed the new runway restrictions, which the FAA directed the airport to start on July 25, in a memo to City Council on Wednesday. The affected runway is known as Runway 5/23, which sits diagonal to the airport’s three parallel runways.

That runway is used mainly for landing jets, and was often used to route approaching flights over the less-populated area west of the airport at night.

The FAA was concerned that even though the center runway and Runway 5/23 don’t actually intersect, the flight paths of planes using the two runways can cross, causing what the memo called “safety concerns.”

The diagonal runway was formerly used for noise abatement between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. Now, the FAA said only the three parallel runways will be used between 5 a.m. and 11 p.m. – meaning an extra 1 1/2 hours of early-morning flights over the neighborhoods north and south of the airport.

“This change in procedure is necessary to provide a safe operating environment given the high demand for airfield capacity,” said Charlotte officials in their memo. The FAA has suspended similar operations at other airports nationwide, the memo said.

US Airways Capt. James Ray, spokesman for the airline’s pilots union, said the move could hurt efficiency at Charlotte Douglas, especially when planes are landing from the south. He estimated the airport is in a “south operation” about 70 percent of the time.

A message Monday to pilots from a US Airways flight operations manager said the new restrictions “will put a strain on the arrival rate during south operations, possibly causing delays within our route structure.”

US Airways spokeswoman Michelle Mohr said in an email that the carrier is still “evaluating the impact from the FAA’s decision.”

Based on federal records, there have been a handful of incidents in the past five years in which people expressed concerns about the simultaneous use of the parallel and diagonal runways.

In October, an Embraer 170 regional jet was departing from the diagonal runway while a Boeing 767 was landing on the center runway. Since the runways don’t intersect, an automated computer system didn’t sound an alarm.

The jets came within 4,600 feet of each other, according to an FAA report. A controller in the Charlotte Douglas tower filed an anonymous complaint with the Aviation Safety Reporting System, a database maintained by NASA, about the incident.

“I would recommend that we do away with this configuration,” the controller wrote of the runway setup. “We are oversaturated with airplanes during this time...It is very complex to land and depart on Runway 23 while also trying to ‘shoot a gap’ with Runway 18C arrivals.”

Charlotte Douglas wouldn’t make anyone available Thursday to talk about noise or how flights at the airport could be affected by the new arrangement.

“CLT is monitoring the impacts of this operational change and is investigating options for addressing this change,” airport officials said in an emailed statement.

FAA spokeswoman Kathleen Berger said in an emailed statement that “operational concerns with converging flight paths” led to the agency’s decision, but did not offer specifics. The suspension is supposed to be temporary, and the FAA will conduct a review of the airport’s flight operations.

Runway 5/23 is the shortest of the airport’s four runways, at just more than 7,500 feet in length. Airport expansion plans call for a new, 12,000-foot parallel runway to be built between the airport’s center and western runways, with a projected opening date of 2017.

Former aviation director Jerry Orr has said he eventually anticipates Charlotte Douglas would close the diagonal runway and open a fifth parallel runway, creating a layout similar to Atlanta Hartsfield Jackson International Airport.

Noise has been a persistent problem around the airport as Charlotte Douglas has grown into a major hub and the nation’s sixth-busiest airport.

The airport has bought and demolished neighborhoods near the airport, such as Moores Park off of Wilkinson, since 1980 to deal with noise complaints. Other residents have sued, and Charlotte Douglas is spending $35 million to buy a 370-acre neighborhood south of the airport to head off noise complaints.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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