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Ali: Flight Feud

08/28/12 7:55AM By Saleem Ali
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(Host) UVM Professor Saleem Ali is on extended professional leave directing a research center in Australia but will continue occasional commentaries that strike common themes across the miles. Today he offers some thoughts on the current controversy over bringing F-35 planes to Burlington.

(Ali) Having flown eleven thousand miles from Burlington, Vermont to my current base in Brisbane, Australia, I remain humbled by the power and value of mechanical flight. Perhaps no other human invention in modern times has transformed global citizenry as has air travel. And as with many other human inventions, aircraft have both civilian and military uses and airports are often, quite literally, at such crossroads where the two meet.

Just before my departure from Vermont, I noted the controversy on whether or not to allow a new series of fighter jets to be based at Burlington International Airport. The usual rift on the matter was framed in terms of jobs versus lifestyle and real-estate value. Now that I am living in a city which is three times the population of the entire state of Vermont, I can perhaps consider this debate from another perspective.

Brisbane International Airport, which boasts numerous international flights and is far busier than Burlington airport , also had to contend with similar concerns some years ago. In 2010, the airport completely banned all aircraft that reach a certain noise threshold because of concerns around real-estate value and noise levels for residents. Interestingly enough, the "banned" aircraft in Brisbane even include the Boeing 727 which happens to still land daily in Burlington for a cargo carrier.

The people of Burlington and surrounding towns embrace the airport and the Vermont Air National Guard as valuable resources, but they are also justifiably concerned about the impact that greater noise levels could have on our communities. Even from a purely practical and economic perspective, in addition to real estate values, the jobs created in a diversified service sector economy in the recently revitalized Winooski downtown could be compromised by excessive noise. And while I agree that it's a good thing for the Department of Defense to invest in Vermont, I think it should do so with respect to scale. Investing in research labs and service centers being relocated to Vermont to create jobs, for example, would seem a better fit.

As a Vermonter in a distant diaspora community, I will follow these developments with both concern and hope. It should be possible to find a positive compromise in which we don't alienate the Air Force, yet still manage to protect the quality of life in these towns along the Winooski River where the rapids are still audible and naturally invigorate the Vermont spirit.

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