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Posted: February 27, 2010 1:27 p.m.

Covington airport could be hurt by proposed changes

The way planes travel into Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport could be changing, which in turn would affect how planes travel around and into Covington Municipal Airport.

Though the changes could increase safety at Hartsfield-Jackson, local and state officials said the changes could negatively affect Covington’s airport. Increased airspace congestion, airport delays and noise are concerns.

The Federal Aviation Administration has a proposal to modify the Class B airspace around Hartsfield-Jackson, including the airspace over Covington’s airport. Class B airspace refers to the airspace around the country’s major airports that is used by large commercial airlines.

Over Covington, commercial planes entering or leaving Hartsfield-Jackson must remain at 8,000 ft. above the ground. The proposal calls would allow those planes to fly as low as 4,000 feet above the ground. Similar changes would occur in all directions around the Atlanta airport.

The proposal has been in the works for a couple of years. According to a May 2008 FFA PowerPoint presentation the reason for the changes is to improve safety.

The airspace around Hartsfield-Jackson has not changed since 1975, but traffic at the Atlanta airport has increased substantially. A fifth runway opened at the airport in May 2006, which has only increased traffic — 980,000 takeoffs and landings occurred in 2008.

"Traffic has increased and the Class B airspace has become too small to contain the aircraft during high traffic volume," the presentation states. "Therefore the Class B has become inefficient for the user and the controller."

Once an airplane enters Class B airspace on its approach to Atlanta, it is supposed to remain in that airspace. Every time a plane leaves or enters Class B airspace an air traffic controller has to notify the aircraft. Because of traffic and the way the airspace is set up, planes often leave the airspace and return during a flight. This is putting a large burden on air traffic controllers.

Planes that do remain in the Class B airspace during their entire approach often have to take inefficient routes to do so.

"Safety and efficiency are compromised when aircraft leave the Class B airspace," the presentation states.

Increasing the amount of vertical space that these planes can travel in will solve the problems, the FAA said.

However, local general aviation airports like Covington say the changes will negatively effect their customers and the general public. Although private planes, personal and business, are allowed to travel in Class B airspace, they must first receive permission from air traffic control. Because of the traffic around Atlanta, this permission often may not be granted.

In this case, these pilots would have to fly below 4,000 feet. While the changes would relieve commercial congestion, general aviation congestion would be increased.

A committee was formed by the Georgia Department of Transportation to study the effect of these changes on aviators at airports around Atlanta. In a draft of its recommendations, the committee members expressed concerned over safety hazards for general aviation, as well as the possibility that planes at these satellite airports around Atlanta would experience delays.

"The lowered altitude of (Atlanta) commercial airline traffic also imposes a lowered initial altitude of departing satellite airport traffic which is a very inefficient and expensive use of time and fuel," the committee stated.

One of the other major concerns was increased noise for residents. Both private and commercial aircraft would be flying lower than before, which could increase noise. The committee expected the number of noise complaints from residents would increase substantially.

In particular, the committee asked that the FAA revise its changes for the Covington, DeKalb-Peachtree and Fulton County airports.

In a Jan. 14 article on reporternewspapers.net, DeKalb-Peachtree Airport Assistant Director Mike Van Wie was quoted as calling the changes horrible for his airport.

"I am here speaking because I think this proposal is horrible for all of us," Van Wie was quoted in the article. "All [of us] have a tremendous amount to lose if this proposal goes forward and becomes adopted [by the FAA]."

Covington City Manager Steve Horton’s response was more measured.

"Even though we feel noise and congestion may be increased, those aspects that we worry about may not be as serious as the issues the air traffic controllers are dealing with. We’re all about trying to keep people from being hurt," Horton said.

Covington has spent more than $8.8 million to expand its airport, and the committee said the lowered airspace could adversely impact its future as an effective satellite and reliever airport.

The committee recommended keeping the floor above Covington at 8,000 feet, and implementing other measures to reduce negative effects on other airports.

Covington residents will have a chance to hear the proposed changes for themselves, ask questions and provide feedback. The FAA will hold three meetings on Feb. 25 at Covington City Hall. Presentations will be given at 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Residents may also send comments in writing to FAA employee Mark Ward at P.O. Box 20636, Atlanta, Ga. 30320. For more information on the meeting and to see original documents visit covnews.com.

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