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Airplane Noise: Local Residents Still Listening for Solutions

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As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan directed the state’s attorney general to sue the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concerning increases in airplane noise, local residents have continued a grassroots push for an end to airplane noise they say is rattling their homes — and their nerves.

The increase in airplane noise is tied to the FAA’s efforts to modernize air traffic operations at the region’s airports through new flight paths. Near BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, noise complaints grew from about 850 in 2014 to 2,700 in 2016.

The revised routes are part the FAA’s $29 billion initiative NextGen, which was implemented in 2015 and shifts navigation from radar to satellites, allowing airplanes to fly more direct routes, saving fuel and expediting takeoffs and landings. However, the planes tend to fly more concentrated routes, which can mean more noise for some people on the ground.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said he was very pleased to hear of Hogan’s action.

“We have been actively exploring legal action on behalf of the many Howard County families who have been suffering,” he said. “We look forward to working with the attorney general to address the FAA’s implementation of NextGen, and bring about the much-needed relief that our residents deserve.”

Hogan has expressed concerns that chronic aircraft noise exposes otherwise healthy people to stress and potential medical conditions, as well as directly negatively impacting property values for Maryland homeowners.

Quieter Fleets

A bit of good news for local residents bothered by the noise is that the noisiest aircraft used at BWI Marshall are on the decline, said David Crandall, a principal consultant with Burlington, Mass.-based HMMH (which also has an office in Herndon, Va.), who spoke at a Sept. 19 meeting in Linthicum of the D.C. Metroplex BWI Community Roundtable. HMMH is an international company specializing in environmental and transportation planning, including noise and vibration control.

“One request we have had is to provide a graphic depiction of the noise from different aircraft,” Crandall said. “To compute a sound exposure level, we take into consideration the loudness of the event along with the duration. The sound exposure level metric combines that into one number.”

As engine technology is developed to be quieter, those noise levels should drop, he said. His calculations drew questions from residents at the meeting as to why aircraft noise isn’t measured in decibels, the measurement that is more familiar to an average person.
“Eighty decibels in any working environment would require hearing protection,” said one resident, who had measured the level of airplane noise using decibels.

Immediate Relief?

The FAA has committed to exploring potential options that might be available to try to provide some relief or remedies for the noise issues people are experiencing, said Robert Owens, assistant district manager of the FAA’s Capital District.

Among ideas the FAA has discussed are switching runways periodically during the day, vectoring aircraft on arrival, vectoring aircraft on departure and having aircraft maintain a higher altitude for longer times, said Owens.

The FAA is continuing to review letters sent by Hogan and others, he said, and a formal response will be sent by the FAA administrator. In the interim, the operations team at the FAA has formed what he called “a collaborative team of subject matter experts: people who work at the BWI tower and people who provide the radar guidance.”
The purpose of the work group is to explore the feasibility, and fly-ability, of solutions to the noise, Owens said. “If we were to implement these procedures, could we do it? What would the impact be to safety? Would it cause an increased delay?”

There certainly would be an increase in communication requirements, he said. “You would introduce the potential for risk into the system, whereas if you go to automation, there is a certain amount of predictability.”

One of the reasons for automating flight patterns in the first place was to increase safety, said Owens. “When you add a human factor or human equation, there is a potential for misunderstanding. That risk presents a huge detriment to safety.”

Trauma on Ground

Though the FAA is actively discussing solutions, “We don’t want to do something operational that can’t be sustained or supported long-term,” said Owens.

Jesse Chancellor, a member of the roundtable, said what residents want is real data points about what the FAA can do — and what it can’t do. “People are throwing up roadblocks,” he said. “What they should be doing is saying, ‘We can do this.’”
Chancellor believes there is something the FAA can do to bring relief to people. “Of course we want safety,” he said. “We feel safe. But the people on the ground are feeling traumatized. You’ve got to do something.”