New flight paths pitched by NAV Canada fuel noise concerns in Tri-Cities

New flight paths NAV Canada
The historic flight paths from 2018 (blue) in comparison to the proposed flight paths (white) with plane elevation for flights landing in westerly winds. NAV Canada map.

Tri-Cities residents could be hearing more planes en route to Vancouver International Airport (YVR) by the fall of 2023, fueling worries over noise pollution.

NAV Canada’s public consultation for a new proposed flight path ends on Feb. 3, and has resulted in a flood of concerned letters and phone calls to various city halls.

Representatives from NAV Canada sent a delegation to Coquitlam City Hall on Jan. 30 to discuss the changes proposed under the Vancouver Airspace Modernization Project (VAMP)

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They received criticism and skepticism by some councillors over the noise projections advertised in their public outreach.

“We’ve seen situations in the past where perhaps (consultation) is presented in a way that looks palatable,” said Coun. Dennis Marsden. “The cynic in me says that the decision is already made.

“I think the pictures you’re showing to the public should more clearly show what’s going to happen … I think it’s doing a disservice to the public.”

The sharp remarks received in Coquitlam were not the first.

Local residents who oppose the change have created a website, with links to studies detailing negative health effects related to noise pollution, and circulated a petition, which has received over 300 signatures in a week.

In response to inquiries into his office, Port Coquitlam Brad West wrote a letter to NAV Canada on Jan. 23, requesting air traffic be shifted over less populated areas, and asked for a briefing at their city hall.

Port Moody Mayor Meghan Lahti followed suit and wrote her own letter on Jan. 31, questioning the need for a change and the methodology of NAV Canada’s noise modelling, and citing noise and health concerns.

New flight paths

NAV Canada’s delegation to Coquitlam contained maps with comparisons between traffic modelling from 2018 (pre-pandemic levels), and the new flight paths.

While parts of the Tri-Cities are already on incoming flight paths, the changes would cause a more direct line over Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam at lower altitudes.

Flights landing in an westerly winds would descend to 5,000 feet over a large portion in the southern Tri-Cities before making the turn to land in Richmond.

Currently, most of that traffic passes over Burnaby, New Westminster and Surrey.

The primary goal of the new flight paths is to increase safety by decreasing complexity for air traffic controllers as traffic grows at YVR. A secondary benefit would be reduced emissions, as an aircraft’s flight time would be shortened.

A new technology is being introduced that allows for a more precise flight path, enabling planes to continually descend in curved approaches to runways in Richmond.

“The way that we managed air traffic, and keep those aircraft safely apart was not sustainable in the long term,” said Christopher Csatlos, a communications manager with NAV Canada.

Air traffic controllers merge streams of incoming planes before they approach runways. Csatlos said these complex merging situations are increasing in some areas, with planes coming in “almost head on” with each other. He said flight path changes would lessen their angle of approach. 

The noise modelling for Coquitlam was measured with the sound emissions of a Boeing 737-800, which would produce approximately 55 decibels at 5,000 feet, compared to ambient community noise ranging from 40 to 55 decibels. 

The Boeing 737-800 is a larger, older model, and produces an “above average” amount of noise, said Jonathan Bagg, another communications manager with NAV Canada.

Bagg qualified, however, that NAV Canada does not control what aircraft the various airlines fly, and some planes would be louder.

“Some will likely notice a change, that’s certainly a possibility,” he said. 

Historic traffic patterns from 2018 showed between 200 to 210 planes arriving daily, according to the NAV Canada representatives, adding that only 5 percent of that occurred at night.

They added that air traffic has not recovered to pre-pandemic levels, and there is still uncertainty for when that level of traffic would resume.

Coquitlam Council

While residents in Richmond would expect higher levels of noise when moving there, this proposal is being forced on people living in the Tri-Cities, said Coun. Craig Hodge.

“That number (of flights) is quite staggering,” Hodge said. “Even if the bulk of these occurred in a 12-hour period, we’re still looking at a flight going overhead every four to five minutes.”

He added that YVR has major capital expansion planned to facilitate increasing traffic, and it would not be long before the number of flights regularly eclipsed the 2018 modelling.

Coun. Trish Mandewo said she currently lives under a flight path, and can hear planes “loud and clear” when they pass over.

She said that Coquitlam residents have been engaged with the issue, and are “totally speaking out against” the proposed changes. 

“I just have to say, this is not right,” Mandewo said, adding that it could have “life changing effects” on people with disabilities or children.

She criticized NAV Canada’s use of only one plane for noise modelling, stating it does not give an accurate picture of the potential impacts.

While NAV Canada may be solving a problem for YVR’s air traffic control, Mandewo said, they could be creating problems in another area. 

She questioned whether the consultation would have any effect on the final plan.

Bagg said NAV Canada has design criteria from Transport Canada that they have to adhere to, which is primarily driven by air safety. 

He said it’s followed by impact studies to look for ways to mitigate noise, and they have made small adjustments in the past.

Mark Chang, who supervises noise management activities at YVR, said they have a noise monitoring system currently in place in Coquitlam, and they would be open to sharing data with the city.

The accuracy of the flight paths shown on maps presented by the delegation was questioned by Mardsen.

He pointed out that the NAV Canada representatives previously said that air traffic controllers will often deviate a plane’s path if there is opportunity to fill gaps in the landing schedule.

“I don’t believe for a moment, (these flight paths) are going to be these hard structured lines,” Mardsen said. 

Mardsen pointed out the new flight path is directly over an area Coquitlam plans to densify over the next two decades.

Bagg confirmed that NAV Canada only looked at 2019 census data, and not population projections, regarding their noise modelling.

He said that land use maps did not figure prominently in their planning, as flight paths cannot easily be tracked on a “block-by-block basis.” 

“That is one of the challenges with airspace design,” Bagg said. “If there’s opportunities for noise mitigation, we have to find swaths of non residential land.”

Mardsen asked staff to share the city’s projected growth estimates for the area under the flight path to NAV Canada. 

“The numbers you’re looking at right now … we’re probably looking at 20 people per acre,” Mardsen said. “But the reality is that’s going to more than 20 fold, easily, over the next 25 years.

“You take out that one acre and put in a tower, it’s got 300 homes with two people each, as opposed to four homes with eight people.”

NAV Canada will prepare a post-consultation report this spring, compiling all the input received. Implementation is scheduled to start in fall or winter, 2023, subject to any changes from the consultation period. A post-implementation assessment period will follow in summer, 2024.

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