Southwest Airlines will design a new approach into the Portland International Jetport in hopes of reducing aircraft noise that has triggered almost a thousand complaints from residential neighborhoods this year.

Members of the Jetport’s Noise Advisory Committee voted Wednesday to ask the Federal Aviation Administration to allow Southwest to develop a special approach channel to the airport.

The approach, which could be used at night but not in poor conditions, would avoid residential neighborhoods in South Portland by using navigational beacons to guide pilots from the east over Casco Bay and the Fore River.

Although Southwest would own the approach, other airlines and air transport companies would likely adopt it, Airport Director Paul Bradbury said.

“Once the procedure is there it can be flown, and it could be a benefit to noise (reduction),” Bradbury said, noting that other airlines could adopt the approach.

Southwest’s proposal mimics a similar corridor called the harbor visual approach, but pilots can use that option only in daylight and good weather. The FAA intends to add waypoints in the harbor to tighten that approach so pilots don’t veer over Peaks Island and South Portland.

Ideally, flights take off and land to the west of the airport, an area that is not as densely inhabited. But depending on conditions, those paths aren’t always available and flights have to take off and land to the east, over Portland and South Portland.

Air Traffic Manager Mark Collins said the Southwest plan evolved following meetings this summer with South Portland residents who are angry about noise from aircraft flying over their homes to land on the airport’s main runway.

More than 900 noise complaints from 237 reporters were logged so far this year. Almost half came from South Portland. Last year, 181 reporters made about 1,400 complaints. Most of the complaints arise from planes that are landing.

The idea for a special approach came after speaking with Southwest, Collins told members of the advisory committee. The airline has four flights a day from Portland to Baltimore.

The approach would take pilots around the north side of Peaks Island, before dipping down above Portland Harbor and the Fore River to the airport.

Even though the approach would require a 3,000-foot ceiling and four-mile visibility, it could be used in the dark, an advantage during long autumn and winter nights.

“There are huge benefits to that, huge benefits,” Collins said. “I wish there was a silver bullet, (but) I think this is another small piece that will help.”

It will take at least a year for Southwest’s proposal to be reviewed and approved by FAA, Collins said. Other airlines would have to ask Southwest for permission and follow its guidelines to use the procedure.

An approach corridor that uses advanced technology to fly in all conditions proposed by South Portland residents this summer isn’t practical or safe, according to the FAA. Not all planes have the equipment needed to make it work, and it would require safety waivers.

But as planes improve, there is a chance that the advanced approach could be used in the future, Collins said.

“At this time it is not safe, and safety is our number one thing, but I think we should address it again in a few years.”

South Portland residents who have agitated for relief said they were optimistic about Southwest’s plan.

The proposal shows the FAA and airlines have heard their concerns, said John Levesque, who lives on Loveitt’s Field Road.

“I think this is moving in a positive direction,” Levesque said.

Even though the Southwest approach is not perfect, he’s wary of another option that would move flight paths over a different neighborhood, he added.

Proposed changes come as the Jetport is breaking year-over-year passenger records. Last year, more than 2 million people passed through the terminal and the passenger count is up 4 percent so far this year.

But because bigger aircraft can carry more passengers, there were only 56,000 flights last year, less than half the peak of 128,000 flights two decades ago. Some of those flights land late at night and depart early in the morning, when noise from planes is more likely to impact residential areas.

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