(CN) – Federal aviation officials failed to consider whether adding a third runway at one of Oregon’s busiest airports would lead to more takeoffs and landings, the 9th Circuit ruled Thursday.
The Seattle-based appellate panel noted its skepticism that increased runway capacity at the Port of Portland’s Hillsboro Airport (HIO) would not affect future demand for and use of the airfield, which lies about 12 miles west of Portland in Hillsboro, Ore.
As such, the environmental assessment of the project must return to the Federal Aviation Administration for more study, the court ruled.
The FAA approved the project in 2010, finding that construction of the new runway would have no significant environmental impact.
Three private citizens, Michelle Barnes, Patrick Conry and Blaine Ackley, asked the 9th Circuit to review the decision, contending that the agency had failed take the required hard look at the potential environmental fallout from increased use of the airport, which they argued was a given with the new runway.
The FAA claimed that the additional runway would not spur an increase in use. As proof the agency cited its own forecasts showing that aviation activity at the airport “is expected to increase at the same rate regardless of whether a new runway is built or not,” according to the ruling.
But forecasts or no, the contention is difficult to support considering the paucity of evidence in the record, the panel found.
“The agencies contend that, while a new runway at a major hub airport might enable airlines to schedule an increased number of connecting flights, thus increasing demand, a new runway at a GA [general aviation] airport is unlikely to attract more private aircraft,” Judge Betty Fletcher wrote for the majority of a three-judge panel. “The agencies do not explain why this is so and do not refer to anything in the record backing their contention. It strains credulity to claim that increasing HIO’s capacity significantly, which in turn would decrease congestion and delay, would have no bearing on the decision of flight schools, the military, emergency medical services, and business and private owners over whether to locate their aircraft at HIO or at other, considerably less busy, GA airports in the area.”
A survey of private pilots who use general aviation airports even neglected to pose the growth question, Fletcher added.
“Ironically, while the pilot survey used to support the HIO Master Plan inquired whether the pilots would consider the availability of rental car services and a restaurant in choosing HIO over other airports, it did not inquire whether they would consider a new runway when making that decision,” she wrote.
“The agencies cannot point to any documents in the record that actually discusses the impact of a third runway on aviation demand at HIO,” Fletcher added. “Tellingly, the Aviation Demand Forecasts chapter of the HIO Master Plan does not even mention the number of runways at HIO in its almost 50 pages, although it recognizes that aviation demand is affected, among other factors, by ‘the nature of available facilities.’ In essence, the agencies would like this court to take their word for it and not question their conclusory assertions … that a new runway would not increase demand. Their word, however, is not entitled to the significant deference that courts give aviation activity forecasts actually performed by the FAA.”
Writing in dissent, Judge Sandra Ikuta accused the majority of needlessly delaying an important infrastructure project with “pointless paperwork.”
“It is conventional wisdom among aviators that ‘when the weight of the paper equals the weight of the airplane, only then you can go flying,” she wrote. “The majority confirms the truth of this quotation: here a federal agency is trying to reduce airport delays and the concomitant negative environmental effects by commencing a project in anticipation of future growth, and the majority sides with delay and air pollution by imposing pointless paperwork on the agency before the necessary project can go forward.”