Should the Government Turn Down the Airport Volume?

Noisy airplane takeoffs have reopened a debate about how the government should treat noise pollution.

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
Oct. 3, 2016, 8:01 p.m.

NEW YORK—On bad days, Cecilia Cody is awake sometime between 5:30 and 6 a.m., when the roar of the first airplane jolts her out of bed. As the day goes on, the flights can soar over her home in the Bayside neighborhood of Queens every couple of minutes, so loud that they drown out the TV even when her windows are shut.

“This is noise harassment,” said Cody. “I’m retired, I just want to enjoy the fruits of my labor and sit outside, or open the windows, and I can’t. Why should I live this way? I’m a citizen, I pay taxes.”

The noise problem in Bayside is rooted in a 2012 upgrade to the Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic-control systems to allow planes to take off more efficiently. It’s also left communities near major airports desperate for relief as roaring planes started flying lower in precise patterns over their houses (“If someone on that plane sneezes, I could hand them a tissue,” Cody said).

“This is a problem for our community’s health,” said Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat who represents the noise-rattled Queens district. “This clearly has not been one of [the FAA’s] top priorities. … We’re constantly grasping at straws.”

Meng’s latest solution, which now has Senate backing, would put the Environmental Protection Agency in charge by reopening an office of noise abatement. The move is meant to put more pressure on the FAA, but also could allow the government to rethink how it handles noise. Rather than viewing it as an unfortunate byproduct of advancing technology and urbanization, could noise be controlled as a health threat like smog or filthy water?

Beyond the obvious consequences of hearing loss and stress, excess noise—estimated to affect 104 million Americans—has been linked to hypertension, heart disease, and developmental problems. EPA was given oversight over noise pollution in 1972, but funding was cut less than a decade later, leaving the government without a unified agenda.

Airplane noise, for instance, is the purview of the FAA; in 1981, the agency set a noise limit and prompted airline manufacturers to produce quieter technology. But the 65 DNL decibel limit (a 24-hour measure of sound that gives more weight to noise in the early morning and night) hasn’t been lowered since then, although it was reaffirmed in the early 1990s.

The Next Generation Air Transportation System upgrade—a transition from radar navigation to a satellite system—has raised new questions. Noise near airports has always been an issue (on a 2003 episode of The Simpsons, noisy airplane routes over Springfield prompted Krusty the Clown’s run for Congress), but NextGen implementation has been followed by a spike in noise complaints from communities such as Palo Alto, Minneapolis, and Phoenix. The debate has also hit home in and around Washington, with Reagan Washington National Airport the focus of an ongoing battle over noise and long-haul flights.

Why? The more efficient NextGen system means that planes fly smooth, precise routes, and can follow the same path with fewer gaps and less variation.

For Queens, that means planes from LaGuardia can take off directly over neighborhoods such as Jackson Heights and Bayside. Data compiled by Queens Quiet Skies, a community group, found that Northeast Queens was on pace for more than 100,000 departures this year, up from 57,000 in 2012, creating noise so loud that windows rattle and elementary school students complain about not being able to concentrate on their lessons.

Local residents and politicians say their complaints have been falling on deaf ears.

“The FAA, they don’t care,” said Ed Braunstein, a state assemblyman and Bayside resident. “They’ve got this almost arrogant manner, that they’re doing this for safety and efficiency. That sounds to me like we want to shoot off more planes and make more money.”

In a statement, the FAA said it “supports the reduction of aircraft noise where it is feasible to do so in cooperation with the aviation community.” Noise monitors have been installed in Queens as part of a local evaluation and has met with community and local politicians to explain NextGen. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has also established a roundtable to evaluate the problem and is in charge of a study on noise impact. That could result in more spending on noise mitigation or changing routes, although the FAA said in a statement that “it is very challenging to change flight patterns in complex airspace like New York without simply shifting noise from one community to another.”

The FAA is also collecting data in 20 communities near airports to reexamine how it determines noise exposure (currently based on a model that factors in flight tracking, fleet mix, runway usage, and the percentage of trips that happen at night).

The airline industry has touted a 95 percent reduction in the noise-affected population between 1975 and 2014, and has said quieter aircraft technology is coming thanks to international standards. In a February letter to the FAA, industry executives cautioned against “recent calls for FAA to fiat in new noise metrics and thresholds without basis,” and urged that the FAA stick to its existing scientific method to assess noise.

Now members of Congress are trying to get the government to think about noise more holistically.

Meng put together the Quiet Skies Caucus, which now has 26 members, and senators such as John McCain and incoming Democratic leader Chuck Schumer have raised warnings about jet noise. The caucus unsuccessfully tried to add several provisions to the FAA reauthorization that passed in July, including requirements for more community engagement on flight-path changes and study of the health impacts of aviation noise. They have also proposed that the FAA lower its noise limit from 65 DNL decibels to 55, in line with other countries.

Meng has even talked to NASA to see how the space agency’s research into jet engines and craft design could be used on aircraft.

Now the caucus has turned its attention to EPA; a bill from Meng and 25 cosponsors would reopen EPA’s office of noise abatement and control and instruct it to recommend ways to mitigate airport noise, among other sources (a Senate companion bill was introduced in July by New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Schumer).

EPA was granted its noise pollution authority in 1972 and used it to recommend safe levels of environmental noise, and even issue noise labels for certain products. The Reagan administration thought that state and local governments could better handle the issue and zeroed out funding for the office in 1982. The last staffer with any ties to the noise office was transferred elsewhere in EPA a few years ago after uploading noise-pollution studies and brochures to a government website that has not been updated since.

Reopening the office wouldn’t just offer advocates another source of pressure on the FAA, it would mean the government was treating noise like an environmental problem. Agencies with a narrower purview may address a single source of sound—the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, for example, can look at loud workplaces—but not the cacophony of everyday life.

“Hearing loss isn’t a disease you can see, or historically something we thought could kill you, so there’s a lower perceived public-health risk,” said University of Michigan professor Rick Neitzel. “Air pollution you can see, and you may be able to choose an area of a city where there seems to be less pollution. Because we haven’t regulated noise, it’s everywhere, and I think people have adopted kind of a defeatist attitude.”

“If noise were to cause people’s ears to bleed, there was an immediate effect, people would treat it differently,” he added.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 26 million Americans have experienced hearing loss linked to noise exposure at work or in leisure activities. Everyone’s aware of the hearing-loss risks from, say, loud fireworks or hours of jackhammering. But the constant thrum of machinery and traffic can add up, and have been linked to higher stress levels, cardiovascular problems, and even developmental problems for children.

Meng said the new EPA office could become a clearinghouse for comprehensive noise-pollution studies and create guidelines for how to keep cities quiet, even resuming its labeling program. European agencies, for example, have been mapping noise pollution across the continent to identify “quiet areas.”

For now, though, she’d be content to just have them hush the jet engines.

“If an agency is not prioritizing this as a health and environmental issue for the American people, then it’s time to take it out of their hands,” Meng said.

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