Burien Wins against FAA in Legal Challenge

Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Sides with City of Burien on Challenge to Flight Path Changes
Posted on 12/05/2019
Plane and clouds.

On November 27, 2019, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in favor of the City of Burien in Burien’s lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) arising from the FAA’s change of a flight path over Burien without environmental review. In 2018, the FAA issued a categorical exclusion (CATEX), which allowed the flight path change to occur without any evaluation of its impact on the environment, including the human health of those living below. A CATEX excludes decisions from environmental review processes.

The FAA’s operational change concentrated the flight path of turboprops over the westerly portion of Burien in a narrow corridor called “the 250 degree heading.” This flight path created intolerable noise on the ground below because the noisy turboprop aircraft turned over western Burien at low altitude. Prior to the FAA’s operational change, the FAA distributed turboprops’ flight paths citywide so no single corridor was used. In response to the change, a coalition of residents worked with the City of Burien to mount a legal challenge to the operational change.

In its lawsuit, the City argued that the change should have been put through an environmental review and that the FAA failed to address the cumulative impacts of the 250 degree heading along with Sea-Tac Airport's growth contemplated by the Sustainable Airport Master Plan (SAMP).

“We are grateful for the support of our many partners in the community, including the Quiet Skies Coalition, Burien Airport Committee, neighboring jurisdictions, and their airport committees,” said Brian J. Wilson, Burien City Manager.

The court’s decision does not halt turboprops from flying over Burien, but the decision halts the automation of the turboprops’ flight path over the narrow corridor previously used. The court directed the FAA to evaluate the cumulative impacts of all of the future actions—including the planned growth addressed by the SAMP—in an environmental review process.

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