The Fort Myers Beach Town Council hosted Michael O’Harra, the Southern Region Regional Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA); Jeff Mulder, Executive Director of the Lee County Port Authority that overseas Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW); and several other FAA and RSW executives on Thursday morning, May 30, in the Town’s ongoing effort to reduce airline traffic over Fort Myers Beach. In January 2018, O’Harra became the senior FAA official over the 8-state region of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North & South Carolina, and Tennessee, along with Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, as well as Florida.
Council member Joanne Shamp, liaison to the Town’s “Air Intrusion Relief” (AIR) citizens group that monitors aircraft activity over Fort Myers Beach, provided an in-depth PowerPoint on air traffic history over Estero Island since RSW opened in 1983, as well as the Town’s requests to the FAA to reduce aircraft activity over the beach community. Joining Shamp were Mayor Anita Cereceda, Council members Bruce Butcher and Rexann Hosafros, and Town Attorney John Herin, Jr., with Vice Mayor Ray Murphy on an excused absence. Following Shamp’s PowerPoint, Chubby Motin, the South Team Manager for the FAA Operations Support Group in Atlanta, presented the FAA PowerPoint to explain current aircraft operational procedures over Fort Myers Beach.
Fewer Planes Over FMB
“On behalf of Town Council and the entire Fort Myers Beach community, I express our appreciation to Jeff Mulder and his RSW staff over the cooperative relationship he established with us over the past 28 months,” Shamp said. “We have had many successful meetings, with great progress being made, but we still feel there is work to do. We appreciate that Michael O’Harra has come to help, with his FAA support team, to strengthen our partnership. Tourism is the backbone of the Fort Myers Beach economy, and airlines bring many people to our ‘Paradise’ from many parts of the world, so hopefully what will transpire today will be in everyone’s best interest in strengthening that partnership.”
“I appreciate your team approach, with lots of community energy,” said O’Harra. “Thank you for all this background information, to forge the partnership between Fort Myers Beach and the FAA, in a good persistent way! This is the FAA model for our projects, with community involvement, and you are giving us a lot to think about. Our intention at this meeting is to listen, as we did not have all the answers before we came in, as that is not who I am, so I truly appreciate all the information you share with us. We understand that what you really want is fewer planes over Fort Myers Beach!”
Shamp noted that Fort Myers Beach is 11.5 miles from RSW, and Estero Island was already built out when RSW opened in 1983. For the next 15 years, there was little air traffic over the island, but in 1998, this shifted drastically when RSW established a “railroad track” of low altitude flights directly over the center of Estero Island, where eventually 74% of all daily arriving flights crossed over the most densely populated part of Fort Myers Beach.
Through ongoing discussions, RSW agreed to the Town’s request to create a new “Back Bay” route that took a greater number of arriving flights over unpopulated Estero Bay, but 49% still come over the island’s “railroad track,” with more than half of those concentrated through a narrow half-mile zone at its center. Forty-one percent of the airplanes fly in at under 3,000 feet, with 15% less than 2,000 feet. A significant portion are nighttime flights that disrupt the sleep patterns of many residents, with negative health impacts from noise exposure, building vibrations and particle pollution. These factors led various Town Councils from 2009 through 2019 to issue five Resolutions to request the FAA and RSW to take actions to resolve these issues, as well as instituting the AIR Group in 2013 under former Council member and current Town “Citizen of The Year” Tom Babcock to track data from roughly 50,000 arriving flights. Babcock unfortunately could not attend the session due to previous obligations.
Shamp made the following requests to the FAA and RSW officials: Reduce the number of aircraft flying over Fort Myers Beach; implement the final release distance for Runway 6 at RSW as that currently utilized safely by companion Runway 24; elevate all arrivals over Estero Island to at least 3,000 feet; and make #24 the preferred runway for arrival landings from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. RSW has two parallel runways, #6 and #24, that operate in opposite directions, with Runway 6 requiring landings over the Gulf of Mexico that force almost half of those flights to cross over Fort Myers Beach, while #24 landings utilize an inland route.
Further complicating matters, RSW does not have air traffic controllers from midnight to 7 a.m., meaning Miami International Airport regulates all incoming flights, but once individual pilots visually see RSW, they, not air traffic controllers, determine which runway to use as well as what height they fly over Fort Myers Beach, so even though the FAA encourages airplanes to use Runway 24 on nighttime arrivals, pilots make their own independent decision.
At the conclusion of the 90-minute meeting, Shamp said, “Thank you for being here, so we can get some things accomplished. Where will we go from here? How will you communicate with us? and What can we expect? I know how to nag, so we expect results, before I nag you again!”
“We will continue with our internal discussions,” replied O’Harra. “I don’t mean to be dismissive but these design timeframes are complicated, so it will most likely not be until later in this calendar year. I appreciate these discussions and feel we are moving in the right direction, so we will be back in touch in a few months.” “You are on my I-phone calendar,” replied Shamp with a smile!
By Gary Mooney