2011-08-24 / Editorials

Birds, Garbage And Airports Do Not Mix

Two years and seven months ago, give or take a few days, we lauded US Airways Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and his copilot, Jeff Skiles, for landing US Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River after the aircraft sustained a double bird strike that disabled both engines minutes after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport. In the Jan. 15, 2009 incident, luck, skill and experience combined brought about a situation in which no lives were lost and only one flight attendant sustained a serious injury—and that injury was due not to the crash, but to a panicking passenger. Put scientifically, this is known as “dodging a bullet”.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which should certainly know better, seeks to create a situation in which the strong possibility exists that planes flying into and out of LaGuardia Airport will take off in the path of not just one figurative bullet, but in front of an entire feathered firing squad. Once there existed a protection zone around LaGuardia’s Runway 31 that extended 2,500 feet across Flushing Bay. Provisions of the protection zone, coupled with a request from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates LaGuardia and the area’s other two airports, JKF and Newark, to build a Category II Instrument Landing Approach system for LaGuardia’s Runway 31 to make landings safer in bad weather, ensured that no structure built within it could exceed 100 feet in height. The protection zone “envelope” included the site of a proposed trash-transfer station in College Point, preventing the transfer station’s construction.

Documents in a court case now before the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals show that FAA executives somehow managed to shrink the boundaries of the protection zone by 800 feet sometime between 2007 and 2009, giving a green light to building the trash transfer station just outside its boundary. In addition, the Category II Instrument Landing Approach system proposal disappeared from consideration. The FAA traded a shrunken protection zone that allows for construction of the trash station for the Port Authority’s relinquishing the navigation system and foregoing its efforts to force a concrete plant in College Point to lower its existing 100-foot-tall chimney.

LaGuardia Airport has been rated as among, if not the most, dangerous airport to fly into and out of in the nation. It was built for much smaller, slower aircraft and literally has nowhere to go. LaGuardia’s two runways are all there is. A navigation system that would make takeoffs and landings easier and safer should be at the top of the list for airport improvements, not buried by some bureaucratic backstairs maneuvering. Given costcutting measures running rampant, we shudder to think what a “simpler” navigation system will consist of—a man on a stepladder waving planes in with a broom, perhaps? As for the so-called Marine Transfer Station, which is scheduled to receive garbage trucks from across Queens beginning in 2013 and to transfer the refuse to barges that will ship the waste out of state for disposal, the detractions are so many and obvious that we scarcely know where to begin to recount them all.

The city declares that the Marine Transfer Station facility will be enclosed and garbage barges will be sealed to limit their attraction to birds. “Negative air pressure” supposedly will keep vapors from escaping. It all sounds great on paper, but as Scot poet Robert Burns observed, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley,” or in modern parlance, have a habit of being thoroughly and completely disrupted, often by simple matters that fell well outside the realm of planners’ ability to forecast. Sooner or later, even the best-sealed building, truck or garbage barge will leak. Even the best-trained workers will fall prey to carelessly discarding a half-eaten sandwich on occasion. The merest hint of garbage readily accessible will bring birds, in flocks. Passengers, crew, airport personnel and residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the airport have all been put in peril.

Had Flight 1549 taken off a few minutes later or earlier than it did, had prevailing winds come out of another compass point, had Sullenberger—who now as a consultant to a network news program strongly opposes situating the Marine Transfer Station in College Point—had a different background, less experience, the outcome of the events of January 2009 would have been vastly different. Luck, Divine Providence, fortuity, all played a part in that event’s safe outcome. The Marine Transfer Station in College Point, directly opposite a LaGuardia runway, shortens the odds of a disaster to the point of their being intolerable. We acknowledge that the city’s trash and garbage must be disposed of safely, efficiently and under the most sanitary conditions possible. Putting a trash transfer station across Flushing Bay from LaGuardia Airport is the worst solution imaginable. As did a number of elected officials in 2009, we urge the city to find another site for the transfer station. Allowing it to remain where it is verges on being criminally irresponsible.

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