Federal appeals court tosses DIA flight path lawsuit against FAA

A federal appeals court this month shot down a long-running legal challenge from Centennial Airport and several Denver metro counties to a set of new flight paths in and out of Denver International Airport that plaintiffs claim bring unwanted noise to neighborhoods and disturb the natural beauty of the foothills.

Despite the June 8 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., residents who say that overhead aircraft noise has become pervasive and disruptive pledge to fight on.

“If we’re going to allow the destruction of our peaceful enjoyment of residential areas and our parks and forests, then what do we have to offer in Colorado?” said Gilpin County resident Donna Okray Parman, founder of a group of residents opposed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s new flight routes. “No, we are not giving up our fight against this.”

The FAA gave its blessing to the new flight paths, dubbed the Denver Metroplex Project, in January 2020. The new protocols went into effect in March 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic struck the nation and reduced air travel to a fraction of what it was.

But now that an increasing number of planes are back in the skies, Okray Parman said the noise has become hard to ignore. Last week, while planting a garden at her home near Black Hawk, the planes just kept coming.

“Every three minutes, there was a jet flying over the house,” she said. “It’s getting horrible.”

The FAA’s Metroplex project uses satellite navigation to move air traffic more safely and efficiently in and out of airports in the metro area, including DIA, Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport and Centennial Airport. The agency projects the streamlined flight paths, which promise smoother descents than the traditional stair-step approach pilots take today, will save more than half a million gallons of fuel annually at a cost savings of $1.8 million.

The FAA last year issued a finding of no significant impact in its record of decision. It concluded that “some people will experience slight noise decreases, some will see no changes, and some will experience small noise increases.”

Okray Parman and hundreds of other residents claim that the shift of westbound air traffic to the south — away from Boulder and toward Gilpin County — is disturbing their peace and quiet and threatening historic sites in the small, mountainous county.

At the same time, many in Denver’s southern suburbs are worried the new approach and departure alignments at DIA will exacerbate noise impacts from air traffic moving in and out of Centennial Airport. The airport, along with Greenwood Village and Gilpin, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, sued the FAA over Metroplex in March 2020.

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The appeals court this month ruled that none of the plaintiffs in the suit had standing to sue. Robert Olislagers, CEO of Centennial Airport, said he wasn’t sure the judges and their clerks “actually understood the case.”

“Being given 10 minutes to argue a complex case is also not conducive to having your case heard,” he said. “…so the easy way out is to make an arcane ruling based on procedure and skip the merits of the case. We, along with our co-petitioners kept this front and center and met every deadline, yet the court simply punted.”

Olislagers said the airport’s board will meet in August and discuss any future steps.

“Unfortunately, it is very difficult to reverse a court decision when it has already been decided that we have no standing,” he said. “The two options remaining are to ask for an en banc ruling or to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. Both are lengthy and expensive processes.”

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