A passenger airliner comes in for landing at the Boise Airport. | Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman
BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Twice each decade, Congress approves a bill to fund and set the policies for the federal agency that oversees the nation’s air travel. This year, one airport was singled out in a standalone section marked “miscellaneous” in the Senate version of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. Inserted at the tail end of the 461-page document, the clause aimed to reroute flight paths at the Boise Airport.
High-ranking aviation officials in Idaho have since questioned U.S. Sen. Jim Risch’s decision to make the late addition to the federal bill in June. The provision would have altered the course of all commercial and military planes as they came and went from the Treasure Valley air hub with the stated goal of reducing aircraft noise. It would have forced pilots to fly through the heart of Meridian toward Nampa before taking off or touching down in Boise. And it would have made violations of those rules a misdemeanor, subject to civil penalties.
Leveraging a federal bill to change the way planes arrive and depart at a U.S. airport is an uncommon approach, according to aviation officials. The process of adjusting such airport operations typically involves lengthy FAA review, including environmental and noise impact studies.
Risch’s effort came about after he brought concerns to the city of Boise and the FAA about aircraft noise specifically in the southwestern part of town dating to at least summer 2021, according to emails obtained by the Idaho Statesman through a public records request. When the FAA ultimately balked at any changes following its analysis, Risch went to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who incorporated the Idaho senator’s demands into the bill that governs the FAA.
The unique tactic garnered the attention of at least two local aviation experts with extensive backgrounds in and around Boise and its municipal airport. In emails to the city of Meridian, they each noted that Risch stood to personally benefit by sending the bulk of aircraft noise into the ears of residents elsewhere in the Treasure Valley. One of them argued Risch risked safety and increased travel delays.
The aviation experts separately noted to Meridian officials that Risch lives near the airport, beneath the existing flight paths. In fact, his home sits in Southwest Boise — the only area Risch identified as the source of noise complaints he said he’s received, the email records showed.
Risch, Idaho’s former governor, in an interview with the Statesman denied that aircraft noise at his longtime home inspired him to seek the changes to operations at the Boise Airport in the federal bill. And he already pulled the language from the bill, he pointed out.
Risch said aircraft noise at his property, which he’s owned for more than 50 years, isn’t a major problem, and he’s merely working to address complaints lodged with him.
“For me, it hasn’t changed that much over the years,” Risch said. “If this was a big issue with me, I’d have had the warpaint on a long time ago.”
Yet, according to airport officials, the airport has received no noise complaints from Southwest Boise for at least the past two years — except those voiced by Risch.
An illustration of U.S. Sen. Jim Risch’s proposed changes to flight patterns at the Boise Airport in Southwest Boise. He included the language in the Senate’s version of the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act of 2023. | Nicole Blanchard, Idaho Statesman
RISCH CALLS BILL AN ‘ATTENTION-GETTER’
Risch’s primary residence sits on a 44-acre ranch 1 1/2 miles west of the Boise Airport as the crow flies. He and his wife, Vicki, moved into the four-bedroom, three-bathroom, 4,915-square-foot home in 1971, before Risch even won his first term serving in the Idaho Statehouse. One of his sons lives in the home on the acre lot next door, and the Risches’ properties are buffered by open space owned by the Idaho Department of Lands since the late 19th century.
Through the decades, living so close to the airport has had its advantages for Risch, 80, who maintains an active work schedule. When Congress is in session, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee still takes at least a weekly trip back and forth between Boise and Washington, D.C. That equates to no less than 70 flights a year since he joined the Senate in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Boise Airport has operated at its current location since 1938, with military operations on site since the 1940s. United Airlines launched jet service there in 1964, and the airport built a new air traffic control tower in 2013 — the city’s tallest building at the time. It is plainly visible from Risch’s land.
The air traffic control tower at the Boise Airport is visible from U.S. Sen. Jim Risch’s family properties on the outskirts of Southwest Boise. | Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman
Risch said he’s received aircraft noise complaints for decades, since his early years as a state senator in the 1970s. They “wax and wane,” he said, “and a lot of it depends on how FAA is operating.”
Corey Barton, president of Idaho’s largest homebuilder, CBH Homes, developed several dozen homes adjacent to Risch’s property in the past decade. CBH also is building a new development with more than 100 homes about a half-mile south.
Barton told the Statesman that he’s never heard of significant airplane noise issues from residents in Southwest Boise.
“It depends on who and where, but that isn’t one of the things that there’s a complaint out there,” Barton said by phone. “You can hear them coming in, but they’re not blasting on them.”
Nonetheless, aircraft noise complaints have continued to stream into his office, Risch said. Over a two-month period last year, Risch’s staff sent emails to the city pinpointing more than a dozen examples of takeoffs and landings deemed problematic, half by A-10C Thunderbolt II military planes housed at Gowen Field Air National Guard Base at the airport, the records showed.
In several instances, the senator highlighted commercial jetliners that swung left shortly after takeoff, connecting with their established flight paths to destination cities in the Western U.S. In one email from June 2022, an image was included of the route taken by an early morning United Airlines flight that ascended over Southwest Boise on its way to Denver.
“The senator just brought another flight to my attention — said it flew over his development at 5:15 a.m. and is a classic example of what he’s trying to address,” Charles Adams, Sen. Jim Risch’s legislative director, wrote to Boise city officials.
In an October letter to the senator, the FAA formally rejected Risch’s requests to address aircraft noise by altering flight paths. That led him to add the language to the federal bill as an “attention-getter,” Risch told the Statesman.
“We contacted the FAA and said we want to talk because we’re getting so many complaints,” he said. “And they were unresponsive to my requests. Thus, the FAA provision.”
SENATOR’S OFFICE DECLINES TO PROVIDE COMPLAINTS
The airport takes complaints about aircraft noise within a 3-mile radius, which encompasses Risch’s neighborhood. Anyone outside that area is asked to send their concerns directly to the FAA through its online noise portal.
Over the past two years, the airport has fielded 18 noise complaints but none of them from Southwest Boise, Shawna Samuelson, an airport spokesperson, told the Statesman. The two complaints nearest Risch’s neighborhood were each 4 miles away, Samuelson confirmed.
Following this year’s annual Gowen Thunder military airshow the last weekend of August, another 14 noise complaints flooded into the airport, Samuelson said. Once again, none were from Southwest Boise, she said.
The city “occasionally receives complaints from its neighbors in southwest Ada County about aircraft noise,” Airport Director Rebecca Hupp wrote in a letter to the FAA in March 2022 requesting review of Boise’s flight paths, after Risch brought the issue to the city.
Risch’s office declined to provide the Statesman with any of the complaints he said he has received about aircraft noise. Marty Boughton, Risch’s spokesperson at the time, cited office policy to protect constituents’ privacy in denying the request.
The policy also includes restricting release of rough dates, general geographic information and a count of the complaints, Boughton said. Members of Congress are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act that requires release of public documents.
The airport last completed a noise study in 2015 and included ways in which it planned to reduce possible aircraft noise for area neighborhoods. The FAA approved the study in August 2016.
Boise residents just north of the airport submitted comments at that time requesting more study to address their growing concerns about noise. They primarily voiced concerns about the military’s plans to transition its fleet of A-10s at Gowen Field to the louder F-35 jets.
In June, the Air Force instead announced that in 2027 it will replace the 18 A-10s in Boise with F-16 Fighting Falcons, which produce fewer decibels than the F-35. Idaho Air National Guard spokesperson Lt. Col. Christopher Borders told the Statesman that the military works to limit potential community impacts when it implements operational changes.
The FAA largely doesn’t regulate military operations. The agency otherwise conducts in-depth review and analysis when it considers operational changes at an airport such as those requested by Risch.
An Idaho Air National Guard A-10C Thunderbolt maneuvers through the airspace near the prominent air traffic control tower at the Boise Airport during the Aug. 26 Gowen Thunder Airshow. | Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman
J.R. Williams, a longtime commercial pilot who keeps a private plane at the Boise Airport, is well-versed in both military and passenger aviation. Williams also commands a unit of the A-10s at Gowen Field as a colonel in the Idaho Air National Guard and was previously an Air Force Thunderbird elite aerial jet pilot for 12 years.
In an email to Meridian Mayor Robert Simison, obtained by the Statesman through a public records request, Williams disputed the intent behind Risch’s inclusion of the language in the Senate version of the FAA reauthorization bill. Williams’ June email was the first time Meridian learned of Risch’s proposal, Dave Miles, the mayor’s chief of staff, told the Statesman by phone. In it, Williams alleged the senator was pursuing the changes at the airport exclusively out of his own self-interest.
“Funneling the vast majority of louder/large aircraft over one specific point is anything but noise mitigation,” Williams wrote from his personal email account. “It may be mitigation for Mr. Risch, as overflight over his house would become a criminal misdemeanor. … Sen. Risch doesn’t seem to care about the folks in Meridian, Eagle, Star or Nampa. He only wants jets to stay away from his house.”
Williams, a Boise resident, signed the email “A frustrated Idahoan.” In a follow-up response to the Statesman, Williams reiterated his concerns about the likelihood of Risch’s proposal causing flight delays, driving up air travel costs and creating safety issues.
“Not only were they unsafe, they were not fully vetted by the FAA and would set a dangerous precedent that would have a detrimental effect on aviation safety, pilots, air traffic controllers and everyone involved in or served by aviation,” Williams said by email.
It wasn’t the last time Meridian would receive an email about the issue.
RISCH PHONES FAA LEADER
Before Risch pursued a legislative avenue, the FAA in the fall rejected Risch’s suggested changes to operations at the Boise Airport. The FAA letter was obtained by the Statesman through a public records request.
“Your primary concern appears to be the point at which aircraft departing (the runway) turn,” FAA Northwest Mountain Administrator Grady Stone wrote. “Safety and efficiency measures preclude us from accommodating your request.”
By May, Risch, undeterred, scheduled a call to discuss his concerns about noise at the Boise Airport with the head of the FAA. He hoped direct contact with the agency’s top decision-maker might move the needle, he said.
“This is like everything else: It’s personality driven, it’s character driven,” Risch said. “You can call up and get some bureaucrat on the phone. … People can cooperate or not cooperate.”
Billy Nolen, the acting FAA administrator at the time, serving under Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg in President Joe Biden’s administration, told the Statesman the call lasted about 30 minutes. It was the only time he remembered ever speaking with Risch.
Nolen sensed Risch was frustrated, he said, and the senator brought up that he lived in the southwest part of Boise near where there were noise issues. Risch didn’t explain any other reason he was interested in the changes, Nolen recalled, and also didn’t mention others’ complaints.
“He lived in the area where the noise was,” Nolen said in a video interview. “So I’m not here to cast any aspersions on the senator’s intent. The concern raised was a noise concern, and that’s what we discussed.”
Nolen, now the chief safety officer at a private aviation firm based in Northern California, has more than 30 years in the industry, including as an Army airplane and helicopter pilot before joining American Airlines as a commercial pilot. Since then, Nolen also has served in aviation safety leadership positions with several air carriers, most recently with Canada’s WestJet Airlines.
He reminded Risch that military operations fall outside the FAA’s purview and reiterated that the agency’s primary concern is safety, which is why it maintains rigorous review processes, Nolen said. After surveying the complaints on record with the FAA for Boise, Nolen told the Statesman, noise just wasn’t an issue in that area.
“Based on the data that we saw that my team provided me at the time, before the call, was that noise — this doesn’t rise to the level of other airports that have more significant noise concerns,” Nolen said. “My overarching piece was: Safety first; let’s use the very structured process.”
Another veteran FAA official put it more bluntly.
“You could never do this, point the aircraft to one point,” said the longtime air traffic controller based out of the Pacific Northwest region, who spoke to the Statesman on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. “You’re going to run aircraft together. It’s just a ridiculous, stupid idea, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
BOISE AVIATION SECTOR ‘UNIVERSALLY EXPRESSED CONCERN’
Bypassing federal bureaucracy was the intent behind adding the language to the bill after the FAA wasn’t responsive to his request, Risch told the Statesman.
Cruz inserted the provision into the bill late in the drafting process under the miscellaneous section on behalf of Risch, the Senate committee secretary told the Statesman. The Senate bill was made public in mid-June, just days after the House introduced its version, which didn’t have Risch’s clause.
Risch said he had discussions about the provision with Cruz and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, who chairs the Senate transportation committee. Cruz’s office did not respond to a Statesman request for comment, and Cantwell’s office directed the Statesman to the committee secretary.
U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 26, 2022 in Washington, D.C. | Bonnie Cash, Getty Images
About a week after the bill was introduced in the Senate, Risch’s office held a call with Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, the email records showed. In a statement to the Statesman, McLean confirmed she’s had conversations with Risch about noise concerns at the airport and his plans to reduce them in Southwest Boise through federal legislation.
Once she saw the proposal, McLean asked the airport to request feedback about it from key stakeholders and share with Risch’s office any concerns from the airport, its operators and others, she said.
“We’re lucky to have an airport that is so easy to fly in and out of, and to access from the city,” McLean said. “My priority remains maintaining operations at our airport and its key role in economic opportunity while taking all steps possible to mitigate the impact of noise on our residents.”
Hupp, the airport’s director, penned a letter to Risch in mid-July and shared a host of issues the bill language created across the airport’s commercial airlines, the military and others that represented “virtually every segment of the aviation industry,” she wrote.
“They universally expressed concern regarding the potential for unintended negative consequences, including impacts to safety, efficiency and the environment,” Hupp wrote.
She went on to specify the proposal’s potential to create “significant delays” for arriving flights, causing excess fuel burn above populated areas while pilots remained in holding patterns awaiting their turn to land. The surveyed group also took issue with an insufficient analysis of the impacts, the undefined enforcement of civil penalties, and the use of confusing, “non-standard aviation terms” in the bill.
Risch and his staff blamed the lack of clear, technical language on the FAA after the agency was not more active in responding to the senator. The FAA had denied Risch’s requests in October.
“The reason it’s worded the way it is, is because we have not heard back from the FAA in time to even make changes,” Adams, Risch’s legislative director, told the Statesman.
ANOTHER BOISE AVIATION EXPERT TAKES ISSUE WITH PLAN
Just days before Hupp sent the letter to Risch, she responded to a set of questions about the bill from the city of Meridian. Miles, the mayor’s chief of staff, having not heard from Risch’s office, mostly sought to understand whether the adjusted flight paths under the proposal would now center above Meridian.
Hupp responded that the airport did not request Risch’s changes, and that the airport deferred to the FAA on decisions about air traffic operations. All operators at the airport “overwhelmingly opposed” Risch’s addition to the bill, she said.
“The proposed departure procedure redirects all departures over Meridian, which would logically increase the noise impact from departing aircraft,” Hupp wrote, confirming that flight paths would have been centered over the fast-growing Boise suburb if the draft bill passed.
In the meantime, the mayor received another email from a citizen who also took issue with Risch’s plan, which the Statesman obtained in a public records request. Andy Coose, who identified himself as a longtime Meridian resident, said he was concerned that the proposal could impact the quality of life and home values in Meridian if it took effect.
For nearly 17 years, Coose also has worked as the Transportation Security Administration’s federal security director for Idaho, and previously worked for a decade as a security specialist for the FAA. In his current role, he oversees the security checkpoints at all of Idaho’s airports, including Boise, and also served on the airport’s master plan advisory committee through 2019.
Risch intends to “reroute aircraft taking off/landing from Boise Airport so that they would overfly neighborhoods in Meridian instead of flying over his property near the airport,” Coose wrote from his personal email account. Coose declined to comment to the Statesman through a TSA spokesperson.
The city of Nampa also was not made aware of Risch’s proposal ahead of time, Lynsey Johnson, business manager for Nampa’s small municipal airstrip, told the Statesman.
“This could create an increase in noise pollution in the area,” she said by email. “The additional traffic could also cause issues with aircraft going/coming from the north to both Nampa and Caldwell airports.”
Risch said he didn’t approach the cities of Meridian and Nampa beforehand because he’d never heard of an aircraft noise complaint from either, and didn’t believe the changes would create any additional issues.
“That’s the whole point of legislation,” Ryan White, Risch’s chief of staff, told the Statesman. “You throw out a draft, you get a discussion going and that happens every single day. Sometimes there’s people that you didn’t realize had a stake in something and they come out of the woodwork and then you include them in the process.”
In fact, the airport’s data showed three noise complaints originating from Meridian over the past two years. Simison and Miles requested a call with Risch, and the senator pledged to contact Meridian if he pursues similar plans going forward, Miles and Risch said.
By mid-July, Risch, in response to Hupp’s letter, and after hearing from Meridian, asked that the provision be dropped from the Senate version of the FAA reauthorization bill. The bill remains under consideration in Congress.
“Based on feedback from (Hupp) and others, he wants to continue the conversation and proceed when some of the concerns are able to be addressed,” White wrote to Hupp and McLean’s governmental affairs director, Kathy Griesmyer.
Risch remains steadfast that the issue of aircraft noise in and around Boise will need to be addressed sooner or later.
“This is a work in progress,” Risch said. “This is not going to resolve now, and it’s going to not resolve in the future. This issue is going to go on as long as there’s a city of Boise and as long as there’s an airport.”
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