Environmental concerns have become the main stumbling block for Airport expansion in the USA and pressure is mounting for local objections to be overruled as air services head for gridlock.

As the struggle goes on to resolve the national crisis over US airport capacity, it turns out that the real road block to new runway building may lie much closer to home than many thought. The money is available, Washington is calling for urgent action and the airports are ready to expand. The big obstacle is local opposition. When it comes to pouring concrete at the city airport, neighbourhood action groups and hometown politicians exert much more influence than Washington worthies.

Locals exert control through various means, including zoning and land use regulations. However, their biggest weapon is usually the environmental process. Some believe that efforts to protect the environment - ranging from wildlife to beautiful vistas to centuries-old cemeteries and even to real estate values - are perhaps only a mask for what is ultimately a battle between national and local desires. The outcome of this battle has become more difficult to predict under the current Republican administration, which says it seeks a less intrusive federal role

Carol Hallett, president and chief executive of the Air Transport Association (ATA), says the airlines "can only do so much, then the onus is on communities" to expand airport capacity. Hallett spoke after convening a meeting of 14 aviation associations, including almost every major US airline and airport group. The meeting closed by declaring that the nation faces a critical capacity emergency and that environmental objections represent the single greatest barrier to airport expansion.

Endemic delays have brought capacity and congestion issues to the forefront of national consciousness. The public is beginning to realise that gridlock is less a function of airlines and mergers than one of capacity. And Virginia Buckingham, executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority (Massport), says gridlock will become a US reality without new runways. "Even with all the efficiencies from airport air-traffic technology we're talking about, you can only get three or four more operations an hour," she says. "But with new runways you can get 30 or 40 more."

Buckingham speaks for Boston's Logan airport, where local opposition has stymied a desperately needed new runway for decades. In discussing what can be done, Buckingham points to streamlining the approval process, calling it "the most dramatic thing we can do to improve capacity".

Any streamlining effort would encompass environmental obstacles to expansion from all areas, including noise, aircraft and vehicle emissions, water and other pollution issues, historical preservation and objections by other governmental agencies. These have all been used in the past to delay much-desired - but much-opposed - airport expansion efforts.

Consider how these objections came into play in Phoenix, where a third runway was proposed as a necessary project in 1970, was committed to in 1989, and finally opened in 2000.

Over the course of getting the project completed, the city of Phoenix had to divert the adjacent - if usually waterless - Salt River, arrange to relocate an Air National Guard facility and overcome countless environmental objections that became more complex over time. For instance, the discovery of Hohokam Indian artifacts and the ensuing archaeological study added four years to the environmental impact study process, and negotiations with the Department of Defense over relocation of the Air National Guard facility added a further two. When the new third runway opened in October 2000, the cost had reached $175 million, says David Kreitor, executive director of the city's aviation department.

And Phoenix is not unique. Charles Barclay, president of the American Association of Airport Executives, says any new runway project will require the participation of as many as eight state, federal and local agencies in the 44 steps it takes to get construction approved. He adds that the necessary environmental assessments and impact statements cover a further 20 categories, from noise to wetlands to solid waste impact.

Expanding existing runways is no easier, as the case of Memphis, Tennessee, reveals. The airport authority there spent almost a decade to conceive the two master plans, two Federal Aviation Administration plans and three noise and environmental impact studies that were required before construction could begin, says airport director Larry Cox.

The first master plan was begun in 1984 and completed in 1986, and an environmental assessment of the plan's impacts began in 1987 and took five years. Then, immediately on its completion, the authority began an environmental impact plan in 1991. It received FAA approval in 1993, seven years after it began the environmental review process. It completed a new parallel runway in 1996 and finished extending an existing runway in September 2000.

In the end, the process took 16 years at a cost of $250 million, plus $150 million more for noise mitigation. And at no time did the airport oppose or attempt to avoid any mitigation efforts that local state or federal agencies had recommended or required, says Cox.

Stunningly inadequate

It is because of processes such as these that Memphis and Phoenix are two of the only five major hub airports at which new runways have opened since 1995, a performance which Airports Council International-North America president David Plavin calls "stunningly inadequate to meet demand". The blame for this situation used to fall equally on locally driven objections and tight federal funding. However, airport funding is now starting to flow under last year's AIR-21 funding bill. Congress appropriated $3.2 billion last year for airport construction and is likely to commit the same amount again this year.

Bonds issued for airport improvements nationally reached $3.6 billion in 2000 and $6.8 billion so far in 2001, according to The Bond Buyer. As the funds have begun to flow, FAA administrator Jane Garvey has remarked: "I never thought I'd say this, but funding may now be the easiest part of the task. Getting environmental approvals is the hardest."

The agency, under congressional prompting, has begun its own streamlining of the environmental review process. This involves no changes in law or regulation, but "working smarter", as one FAA official puts it. The initiative calls for such steps as creating teams to review applications and keeping the same team on a given project. Buckingham says this is "a good start, but is not enough". For the opponents of airport expansion, it is already too much.

Richard Kassel, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defence Council, predicts expediting the process will not be easy. Airports are rising on the environmental agenda because they "are the fastest-growing source of emissions linked to global warming", he says. Like the airline and airport interests, Kassel and other environmentalists see the issue as one of control, and the place where control is won or lost is in the environmental approval process. "The dirty secret of environmental streamlining is that it gives Congress the ability to override local communities' power," says Kassel.

If the runway approval process, streamlined or not, does not embrace local communities, then time-consuming lawsuits are inevitable. Dennis McGrann, executive director of the National Organisation to Insure a Sound-controlled Environment (NOISE), says: "They talk about litigation holding up the process. Well, if you're excluded from the process, what else are you going to do?" It will not be easy to turn a deaf ear to NOISE, which is linked with the National League of Cities, a powerful lobbying group representing thousands of US communities.

National emergency

That is why control over airport expansion is becoming a federal case. With the capacity summit's declaration of a national emergency and a move to identify by consensus the projects most needing expansion, the airports would also like to see the appointment of a "capacity czar" at federal level, says Barclay. However, there is plenty of opposition from the expected quarters. For instance, McGrann, unsurprisingly, predicts vast resistance to the idea of "investing in a single unelected bureaucrat with no responsibility to local communities the power to waive environmental protections when they become too inconvenient".

Even the usual supporters of airport expansion, such as Jim Oberstar, a key member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, have voiced uncertainty about the idea. Oberstar warns: "We must remember that under our system, the decision to build a new runway is a local decision. The federal government has no authority to direct that these projects be undertaken." But that may be about to change, and change because of the airport that typifies the nationwide dilemma on expansion: Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

Chicago has it all: it is a key hub, it has a noise footprint that covers some wealthy and some very vocal suburbs, it is near environmentally sensitive areas including wetlands, its neighbouring airports are wary of its growth and it has not one but two historic cemeteries. Experience has shown that each of these represents a struggle that can take years to resolve.

The battle over O'Hare - a battle between the city of Chicago and the rest of the state, including adamantly opposed Chicago suburbs, and some other regional airports - is now a federal case. Congress has threatened to strip the State of Illinois of its power to block the airport growth wanted by the city, which owns the airport.

Illinois has backed a new Chicago airport south of the city at Peotone, the so-called third airport (after O'Hare and Midway). Peotone also has backing from some Chicago-area members of Congress who have vocally opposed any O'Hare expansion. Their opposition to the city's $6 billion plan to add an eighth O'Hare runway prompted House Aviation Subcommittee members to back a bill limiting a state's veto power over growth at key hub cities.

Aviation Subcommittee chairman Dan Mica, a Florida Republican, says: "If the Not-In-My-Back-Yard or NIMBY groups prevent the building of much-needed infrastructure, our national air system is headed for a meltdown."

A single cancellation at O'Hare can slow down some 300 airliners in 70 cities by the time its ripple effect spreads, says Mica. The senior Democrat on the aviation panel, William Lipinksi of Chicago, made it clear in early August that this bill would apply not just to Chicago but to any number of cities with an airport that needed expansion but faced a state objection.

Opponents, including the Illinois governor and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican who hails from an O'Hare suburb, claim this is a federal power grab and possibly unconstitutional, but Lipinski insists that the federal government has power over interstate commerce. Lipinski, who has support from both parties, has also won commitment from the Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, another Illinois Republican, to allow a vote on the bill.

Source of delays

The Senate's commerce committee has also adopted a measure that would require any airport identified as the source of delays that "significantly affect" the national air system to begin expansion within five years. The airports affected would be identified by the secretary of transportation, and would most likely be taken from the FAA's recent capacity benchmark study that identified airports most in need of expansion.

However, one senior figure in the airport community warns that getting a federal push going is no panacea. Jeffrey Hamiel, chairman of the Airports Council-North America Board's executive committee and executive director of the Minneapolis/St Paul Airports Commission, says: "Accelerating the federal process does not do anything to expedite the local community process. Airports will always be criticised by environmental groups. If you can't get their support, at least you can neutralise them by showing that you take their concerns seriously." But taking these concerns seriously, by definition, is a time-consuming business.

As Foley & Lardner airports attorney Michael Schneiderman says, although getting airports built was never meant to be that rapid in the first place, the US system has been paying expensive waiting fees for a long time.

Source: Airline Business