Small Washington Town Sues FAA over Changes in Flight Paths from Seattle Airport

MAY 23, 2017

The City of Burien (King County) is supporting residents disturbed by a new flight path for propeller-driven aircraft departing Seattle-Tacoma International Airport ("Sea-Tac") by challenging the FAA's approval of the new route. The City filed a petition for review of the FAA's approval in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit on Feb. 14.

Some citizens of Burien, organized as the Quiet Skies Coalition, first took up the issue of the impacts of the new flight route and pressured the City to take up their cause.

The petition asks the court to review the FAA's final decisions to permanently implement new flight departure procedures at Sea-Tac; the FAA's denial of requests to modify or cease implementation of the new procedures; and the FAA's failure to conduct a review of the environmental impacts of the new procedures.

The petition claims that the City of Burien is an "environmental justice community" within the meaning of Executive Order 12898. According to city council member Debi Wagner, Burien is the poorest community in King County (median annual income $26,000), and the state's Board of Health designated Burien an "environmental justice community" in 2001.

The petition alleges that the FAA, in the summer of 2016, tested the new flight route without notice to the City or its residents, and did not respond to numerous inquiries by the City and individuals until the end of 2016, by which time it declared it would not reconsider the new route. Reportedly the FAA had not even notified the Port of Seattle, the operator of Sea-Tac, that it was testing a new departure route.

Following the filing of the petition, the FAA sent the mayor of Burien a letter on April 10 announcing that it had made one change to the new flight procedure. The letter, from KC Yanamura, the regional administrator for the FAA's Northwest Mountain Region, also offered to meet with city officials to discuss the new departure procedures.

Despite this apparent softening of the FAA's posture, the City is continuing to prosecute its lawsuit. Court-sponsored mediation is underway, and the court has ordered the City to file its opening brief by Sept. 5, and the FAA to file its answering brief by Oct. 5.

Sources: Various on-line reports, interviews, and court records.

Case information:

Court: 9th Circuit U.S. Ct. App., case 17-70438, filed Feb. 14, 2017

Plaintiff's attorneys: Matthew G. Adams and Jessica L. Duggan (Dentons US LLP), San Francisco, Calif.; Lisa M. Marshall, City Attorney for Burien

Petition for Review of FAA Decision (Feb. 14, 2017)