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State Senator Worries Airports Are Maximizing Traffic At Expense Of Safety

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Fliers at New York City airports have been frustrated – not in the passenger cabin, but in the cockpit.

As CBS 2's Tony Aiello reported Tuesday, pilots have been caught on tape complaining about not landing on their preferred runway at John F. Kennedy International Airport.

In the country's most complicated airspace, allocating runways at JFK and at LaGuardia Airport is like piecing together a puzzle.

"The two are interconnected, -- depending on what runway is used at JFK, it interferes with the runways that they have to use at LaGuardia," said New York State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Queens.)

Avella fears the runways at JFK and LaGuardia are chosen to maximize traffic – based in part on cockpit chatter.

In one example, a pilot asked for Runway 31 at JFK and was told instead to land on Runway 22 – despite concerns about the wind.

"Why is 31 Right and 31 Left not being used with the winds the way they are at Kennedy?" the pilot asked the air traffic controller as he prepared to land.

"You know, sir, I wish I could answer that question for you," the air traffic controller replied.

But Avella said he is concerned the answer might be that safety is not the top priority.

"I'm not an expert on this -- are the pilots being directed to certain runways in order to increase capacity at the expense of safety?" Avella said.

Retired airport manager Robert Whitehair said pilots are trying to balance safety with the pressures of the schedule.

"Airlines are pushing them to get to the gate as quickly as possible so they can load and unload the passengers as quickly as possible," Whitehair said.

Whitehair lives in Douglaston, Queens and said the skies above have gotten noisier as runway selection forces more jets over his neighborhood.

But residents of northern Queens and other areas affected by airport noise are encouraged by several moves the Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to make.

Avella's office has prepared files for a community roundtable on the issue to which the FAA has agreed, along with an in-depth study evaluating the impacts of air traffic at JFK and LaGuardia on surrounding areas.

The FAA said pilots understand runway use is based on several factors, including wind direction and weather conditions. The agency works with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to change runways once every eight hours to reduce noise for communities under the flight paths.

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