For now, tracking planes flying into or out of the Tampa Bay area's airports means air traffic controllers looking at ground-based radar and talking with pilots on the radio.
The future will involve GPS tracking coordinated by 24 satellites. Controllers will still use radar, too, but their communication will be more detailed text messaging with pilots in the air.
And the result, the Federal Aviation Administration says, will be like going from using fold-out maps to plan a family vacation to downloading a GPS app like WAZE to get a better sense of the best routes and real-time traffic information that could affect the trip.
Jets should fly on more direct flight paths that are safer, more efficient, require less fuel and generate less pollution, aviation officials say. Airports should be less congested. And coordination between airports 100 miles apart — a distance that sounds like a long way on the ground, but is not so great in the air — should improve.
"Florida's the only state in the country that has four major international air carrier airports — Tampa, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando — so it's some of the busiest air space in the country," said Michael O’Harra, the Federal Aviation Administration's southern regional administrator in Atlanta. "This project is going to help us make planes more efficient, while maintaining the highest level of safety in the air space."
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But before the federal officials enact any changes to flight paths or procedures for Tampa International Airport or St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, they are holding a series of public meetings about the new program. The first takes place 6 p.m. April 29 at the Clarion Inn & Suites on U.S. 19 N in Clearwater, with three more meetings to follow in Tampa and Carrollwood.
"We have worked very closely with both airports to make sure that we are cognizant of and that we're sensitive to their concerns about assisting noise abatement procedures or any areas of concern to the airports," said Jim Arrighi, a Federal Aviation Administration metroplex program manager based in Washington D.C. "We've made maximum effort in this area to ensure that we make very limited changes below 10,000 feet. We have no new tracks that we are creating (or) new procedures that we are creating below 10,000 feet."
Above 10,000 feet, he said, the noise impact should be limited, and that's where the agency is looking to make a change over Pinellas County.
Currently, westbound flights that take off from Tampa International Airport take a turn to the southwest and fly a path above 10,000 feet that takes them over Safety Harbor, then Clearwater, Largo and Indian Shores before they head out over the Gulf of Mexico.
As proposed, those flights would instead turn more due west and fly over an area that includes Dunedin, Oldsmar, East Lake, Palm Harbor and Tarpon Springs.
Making that change, officials said, would better keep westbound departing flights away from other flights that are headed to Tampa or other Florida airports on the coast to land.
"We're going to make every effort through this project to keep flights over non-residential areas," O'Harra said. "We can't always do that. We'll overlap current routes to the extent possible. That's part of why we want the public to come and see what these proposed routes look like relative to the areas where they may have interest."
Safety Harbor resident Lou Claudio, a longtime watchdog on anything that affects noise coming from jets using St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, isn't sure what to make of the Federal Aviation Administration's proposals.
"I'm currently unclear as to what it all means, but I'm very concerned that it doesn't make the noise problem over my house any worse than it already is," Claudio, who wears earplugs to bed, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
The Federal Aviation Administration is looking at making changes to flight routes and procedures nationwide in a total of 11 "metroplex" areas with multiple airports and complex air traffic flows. So far, it has completed the process in seven. So along with the Tampa Bay area, the metroplex authorities are looking at in Florida encompasses airports in Orlando, Miami and Fort Lauderdale, too.
"There is interaction between the airports," O'Harra said. Because of "the complexity of the airspace … you can't redesign the procedures into one airport without considering or potentially affecting the others."
Since last September, when the agency finished its work in the metroplex that includes Cleveland and Detroit, those airports have seen a 36 percent drop in flight delays compared with an average from 2012 to 2016. The total number of minutes of delay have dropped 58 percent.
In Houston, O'Harra said, the number of air miles flown over the city has dropped by 650,000 each year since the metroplex project was finished. That has prevented the emission of an estimated 31,000 metric tons of carbon.
"There are environmental benefits as well as passenger benefits as the system is operating more efficiently with this technology," O'Harra said.
Elsewhere, the Federal Aviation Administration's proposed changes have met with more resistance. The city of Phoenix and a historic neighborhood sued the agency in federal court in 2015, arguing that changes to longstanding flight routes into and out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport were arbitrary and capricious. In 2017, a three-judge panel agreed by a vote of 2-1, and the public input process has gone on since, with the most recent public workshop taking place last month.
In the Tampa Bay area, the metroplex review is not expected to affect flight operations out of MacDill Air Force Base or the U.S. Coast Guard air station at St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, the busiest air station that the service operates.
Once the agency concludes its bay area workshops on May 2, it will take comments by email to be considered during an environmental review of the proposed changes. Officials will return in a year or so to share their findings. Depending on the results of the environmental assessments, any new flight paths or procedures would go into effect in late 2020 at the earliest.
"It’s important for people to come to these meetings," Tampa International Airport spokeswoman Janet Scherberger said, and not only because it's a chance to learn about what's being proposed. Noise, for example, is something that local airport officials often get an earful about from residents, even though they don't control the bigger picture.
This is different, she said.
"It’s not very often that the community has an opportunity to speak directly to the FAA."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times
To learn more
The Federal Aviation Administration will hold four public meetings around the Tampa Bay area to ask for the public's thoughts on its proposed plan to change air traffic procedures for Tampa International Airport, St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport and local general aviation airports. The three-hour open houses will be:
• 6 p.m. April 29 at the Clarion Inn & Suites, 20967 U.S. 19 N, Clearwater.
• 6 p.m. April 30 at the Tampa Airport Marriott, 4200 George J. Bean Parkway, Tampa.
• 6 p.m. May 1 at the Carrollwood Cultural Center, 4537 Lowell Road, Tampa.
• 5 p.m. May 2 at the Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library, 3910 S Manhattan Ave, Tampa.
The workshops will be open houses where agency officials and air traffic controllers will be on hand to discuss preliminary designs. For 30 days after that, the agency will take written comments via email at:
For Pinellas County residents: [email protected]
For Hillsborough County residents: [email protected]
For more information, go to faa.gov/nextgen/ and follow the tab for "NextGen near you."