Noise, rumors and speculative investors: Residents voice concerns about Mobile airport relocation

Chris Curry, president of the Mobile Airport Authority, speaks to a guest at a town hall event on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, at the Mobile Carnival Museum in Mobile, Ala. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

Concerns about noise, speculative investors and other uncertainties surrounding a possible relocation of Mobile’s commercial air service closer to downtown appear to be dominating neighborhood conversations around the city.

On Thursday, during a town hall meeting at the Mobile Carnival Museum, those concerns were directed at the head of the Mobile Airport Authority.

Chris Curry, the MMA’s executive director for the past year and its president since last month, reassured residents that there will be plenty of opportunities to address noise issues during a forthcoming master planning process.

"There are rumors ongoing about Brookley and what the airport will do and what this plan will do," said Curry, addressing concerns he’s heard during earlier public meetings about the proposed relocation of commercial flights from Mobile Regional Airport in the city’s far western end to the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley that is located less than 5 miles southeast of downtown.

"None of these decisions have been made yet," Curry said. "They will be determined through the master planning process, which will take one to one-and-a-half years to develop."

Curry, though, hinted that some plans were being kicked around regarding noise abatement from an airport that – if relocated to Brookley – will be a few short miles from an established and racially diverse neighborhood.

He said that one issue that could be considered is a curfew where commercial aircraft would not land after 11 p.m. Commercial aircraft, Curry said, would likely not be departing from a repurposed Brookley before 6 a.m.

"But there is a careful balance between how a community tolerates something that is slightly uncomfortable for some and, on the other side, is a tremendous economic opportunity," said Curry. "That’s the balance we have to make."

City Councilman C.J. Small, who represents the area closest to the airport, said he’s heard worries about noise levels from his constituents.

Small, though, said he "felt good" that Curry was open to having dialogue with residents and acknowledged that the airport director had been "going around and talking to community groups and district meetings about what kind of noise would come from the airport."

Small hosted the town hall meeting along with state Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile. Approximately 140 people, mostly senior citizens, attended.

"The best thing I can say about this is that the community will be involved in the transition of the airport," said Small. He also said that Curry has informed him that more public meetings, as part of the master planning process, will occur in January.

Barbara Baptiste, president of a residential association within Frank Boykin Towers – a senior citizens housing complex west of Interstate 10 from Brookley – said that while she’s excited about the potential airport relocation, a big unknown is the noise.

"There is already a lot of noise," said Baptiste, referring to Airbus jetliners that take off and land at the Mobile Aeroplex at Brookley. The $600 million Airbus plant, which opened in 2015, assembles aircraft for the world’s No. 2-largest airline-maker.

Curry said he believes that if residents can tolerate the existing noise at Brookley, then they will have no problems with commercial flights.

He said the goal is for Brookley to handle commercial flights for low-cost carriers. Typically, those carriers field fleets of smaller jets than the jets flowing from the Airbus line or that arrive at Brookley for maintenance.

FedEx Express also uses the complex for daily cargo flights from Memphis, Tennessee.

"If you recognize Brookley today, you know that it’s certainly an airport that caters to some very large aircraft, and some of the largest in the industry have maintenance repairs (on site)," said Curry. "When we bring commercial service to Brookley, we will not bring aircraft that large in the configuration. There are also different engines with noise requirements than what was used before."

He added, "If you are not bothered right now by Airbus testing their aircraft on a daily basis, you should not be too bothered by the commercial aviation at Brookley."

Residents like Baptiste also raised concerns about a proliferation of what they referred to as speculative housing offers for property throughout the surrounding neighborhoods.

Drummond urged homeowners to hold onto their properties.

"Change is coming and there is a natural growth that will occur," Drummond said. "I know many of you are getting letters from speculators, and not the Airport Authority, about your houses. You need to sit on your house. Don’t let someone buy your property for a nickel and then have them sell it for whoever the developer is for a dime."

Curry said there was no intent from the Airport Authority, at this time, to purchase properties within the neighborhoods for a Brookley expansion.

"We don’t have a need for additional space that we don’t own," said Curry.

The Airport Authority’s master planning process follows the release, this summer, of a report that justifies a switch of commercial service from Mobile Regional to Brookley.

The comprehensive master plan is expected to take futuristic look at the city’s air service for the next 20 years.

But there is interest in providing immediate service at Brookley. ViaAir is currently flying out of Mobile Regional, with direct stops to Orlando. But the low-cost carrier is wanting to begin, as soon as possible, offering those flights out of Brookley.

The MAA has pledged to set up a Brookley passenger terminal and is looking at moving ahead with a serious investment rather than setting up a prefab temporary structure. Last month, the MAA voted to authorize negotiations on the preliminary engineering and design work not to exceed $190,000 for a new terminal.

Curry said the part of the interest in relocating the airport downtown – an almost-unheard of concept for cities in the U.S. – also boils down to fares, which Mobile ranks among the highest along the Gulf Coast.

"When you look at the different carriers we have at the Regional Airport, they are considered legacy carriers," he said. "As we communicated with other carriers, they said they were not interested in Mobile Regional at all. It was difficult to get to. And when you talk about the low-cost carriers we hope to get into the market … and we talked about Brookley as an opportunity, their eyes lit up. That is a game-changer for the community."

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