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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