FAA Airspace Redesign: An Analysis of the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Project

GAO-08-786: Jul 31, 2008

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In September 2007, after 9 years of evaluation and a cost of over $53 million, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced it would begin implementing a new airspace structure for the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia metropolitan area. According to FAA, this redesign of routes leading to and from commercial airports will fully integrate the airspace in the region, produce $300 million annual savings, and reduce delay by 20 percent once fully implemented. Critics disagree and cite potential increases in aircraft noise and other adverse environmental impacts. GAO was asked to examine: (1) the extent to which FAA followed legal requirements for its environmental review, (2) the extent to which FAA's methodology in assessing operational and noise impacts was reasonable, and (3) the likelihood FAA will meet its projected time frames and costs of implementation. GAO's legal analysis covered applicable federal laws, regulations, court decisions, and FAA orders. GAO's analysis of FAA's methodology was based on criteria established through review of federal policy, FAA's guidance, prior GAO reports, and standards from the aviation and analytical community. With the assistance of the National Academy of Sciences, GAO identified experts in the fields of environmental policies and procedures, airspace operations, and aircraft noise measurement and obtained their views on relevant aspects of FAA's methodology.

GAO evaluated FAA's compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and environmental justice directives in conducting the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Airspace Redesign project. In assessing compliance, GAO used established court precedent applying these requirements, as well as the standard of review for agency actions established by the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), which is deferential to agency decision making. Courts interpret the APA standard--whether an agency's actions were "arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law"--as mandating that an agency act reasonably in carrying out NEPA's requirements and that the agency's ultimate decisions be reasonable and not arbitrary and capricious. GAO reviewed FAA's compliance with respect to five key issues: the statement of the project's purpose and need, the evaluation of alternatives, consideration of the project's environmental effects, public participation, and environmental justice matters. GAO selected these issues based on public concerns raised during and after the NEPA process, congressional interest, the views of experts we interviewed, and GAO's evaluation of the range of concerns presented. Applying these legal requirements and the APA's reasonableness standard, GAO concluded that FAA complied with applicable NEPA requirements and related environmental justice directives. First, the statement of the project's purpose and need--which defines the objective of the project and which, in this case, was to increase the efficiency and reliability of the airspace while enhancing safety and reducing delays--was reasonable. The statement was reasonable in scope, as it was not defined too narrowly or too broadly, and it reasonably excluded noise reduction. Second, FAA developed a reasonable range of alternatives to the redesign and appropriately evaluated these alternatives. As required, FAA included a no-action alternative to serve as a baseline, as well as alternatives that would achieve the project's purpose and need. FAA also discussed options eliminated from detailed analysis, and explored and objectively evaluated the remaining alternatives. Third, FAA acted reasonably in not analyzing the indirect environmental effects of potential growth resulting from the redesign. Because FAA found the redesign in itself would not increase traffic demand and flight operations, it did not consider the potential environmental impacts of these system improvements. In the aviation context, courts have uniformly upheld similar decisions by FAA where, as in this case, the purpose of the project was not to induce growth and the project did not include capacity-enhancing construction, such as the addition of a runway. Fourth, FAA reasonably involved the public throughout the environmental review process. It took actions required to ensure public outreach including conducting an early and open process, providing notice of and holding public meetings, and soliciting and responding to public comments. Fifth, FAA satisfied environmental justice directives in Executive Order 12898 and related guidance and Orders. FAA prepared an analysis that identified minority and low-income populations significantly impacted by the proposed redesign, and determined whether the impact on these populations was disproportionate. FAA also involved these individuals throughout the environmental review process. In addition, FAA mitigated these significant impacts by altering arrival procedures and departure headings, raising arrival altitudes, and other related measures.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve FAA's effectiveness in conducting future airspace redesigns, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation should, in developing and implementing future airspace redesigns, direct the Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct an uncertainty analysis of key assumptions and inputs--particularly on elements within aviation demand forecasts. The analysis should be used to assess the extent to which the estimated impacts for the airspace redesign alternatives would change using different values for key assumptions and inputs and to provide information on the level of confidence in the project's estimated impacts and the relative ranking of the alternatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: FAA has not had the opportunity to implement this recommendation because no airspace redesign projects that would fall under this criteria have begun since GAO made this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve FAA's effectiveness and accountability in implementing the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Airspace Redesign, the the Secretary of the Department of Transportation should direct the Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to follow a post implementation evaluation plan that includes an adaptive management strategy for monitoring implementation of the redesign and communicating the results to key stakeholders for the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Airspace Redesign.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: We found that the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) did not have a plan for how it was going to evaluate the implementation of its New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Airspace Redesign project. One strategy used by other federal agencies for evaluating a project's implementation is the adaptive management strategy. Adaptive management is a strategy that recognizes the need for flexibility and would allow for modification of the redesigned airspace if the results of future research indicate a need for change, as long as these changes do not significantly affect the quality of the human environment. We recommended that FAA follow a post implementation evaluation plan that includes an adaptive management strategy for monitoring implementation of the redesign and communicating the results to key stakeholders. In response, FAA has begun using Human-In-the-Loop simulation activities to monitor its implementation of the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Airspace Redesign project. As a result, FAA can monitor whether the preferred alternative for the airspace on paper is actually occurring in practice and may adjust the airspace changes to meet the intended results.

    Recommendation: To improve FAA's effectiveness and accountability in implementing the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Airspace Redesign, the the Secretary of the Department of Transportation should direct the Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to develop and follow a detailed implementation plan that includes a time and cost schedule, risk mitigation plan, transition planning, and monitoring and evaluation plan for the New York/New Jersey/Philadelphia Airspace Redesign.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: FAA has a detailed time schedule, but implementation costs for the airspace redesign are still not available. FAA is monitoring the implementation and plans to issue an evaluation report 6 months and 1 year after Stage 2b implementation is completed in May 2012.

    Recommendation: To improve FAA's effectiveness in conducting future airspace redesigns, the Secretary of the Department of Transportation should, in developing and implementing future airspace redesigns, direct the Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct a benefit-cost analysis for the purpose of assessing the economic effect of alternatives for airspace redesigns (including the status quo). Such an analysis should include an assessment of the key impacts associated with redesigning the airspace, including implementation costs and, as appropriate, the economic effect associated with noise.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Open

    Comments: FAA has included benefit and cost analysis as part of the business case for metroplex development under the Optimization of Airspace and Procedures for Metroplex (OAPM) program, but disagrees that benefit-cost analysis should be part of individual airspace redesign efforts because of many other qualitative factors that need to be considered.

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