At one point in the not-so-distant past, the sounds of jets descending from eastern Howard County onto runways at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport weren’t frequent and were somewhat faint. Few area residents gave that particular sight and sound much thought.
But about 20 months ago, the airport’s air traffic controllers began to employ the Next Generation (NextGen) Air Transportation System, which the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is in the early stages of rolling out nationwide.
And around that time, many locals began yearning for what, at the moment, qualifies as the good ol’ days. And getting concerned about their home values.
Since BWI Marshall started using NextGen, which calls for a repetitious flight path at a lower altitude, noise complaints from that section of the county have skyrocketed; a recent press release on the matter from the office of Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman included statistics from BWI Marshall that reveal the airport received 835 noise complaints in 2014, but last year that number jumped to 1,849 — an increase of 121%. Noise complaints resulting from implementing NextGen technology have also been reported near airports in Boston, San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Phoenix and New York.
The planes may not be taking off and landing one right after the other, but it can seem that way. Just ask the residents who live along the low flight path and have to keep their windows and doors closed these days.
The issue recently led Kittleman to spearhead a group meeting with FAA officials, where the complaints and concerns of the community were presented to Brian Langdon, of the FAA’s Office of Government and Industry Affairs.
The next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 12. Meanwhile, the problem continues, with the FAA slated, at present, to continue its NextGen roll-out, which isn’t projected for completion until 2025.
What It Is
NextGen is satellite technology that is designed to reduce flight times, fuel consumption, and emissions and pollution, as well as deliver savings to the airline industry. In describing NextGen on its web site, the U.S. Department of Transportation offered the following.
The movement to the next generation of aviation is being enabled by a shift to smarter, satellite-based and digital technologies, and new procedures that combine to make air travel more convenient, predictable and environmentally friendly.
However, various residents in the eastern Howard County areas of Hanover and Elkridge, and even parts of Ellicott City and Columbia, are taking exception to those last two words. Technologies that are “environmentally friendly” aren’t supposed to be creating more noise than the previous model, but that’s what’s been happening since BWI Marshall started employing NextGen in November 2014, with full implementation the following spring.
“With NextGEN, the goal is to increase safety and efficiency,” said Howard County Councilman Jon Weinstein (who, with Council Chair Calvin Ball, represents the areas most affected), “but the system calls for the planes to take off, do maneuvers (such as turning) and land at much lower altitudes than in the past, which accounts for the noise increase.”
And the FAA knows that it didn’t do its homework prior to the implementation of NextGen, he said.
“In our conversations with the FAA, they admitted that they didn’t do a very good job incorporating the system into the airports’ communities,” Weinstein said, “and they’re having issues with individuals who live in these areas.”
But at present, there’s really little the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA) can do about the issue without the FAA working with the airport. “We’re going to stay focused on the FAA, MAA and the community in taking action,” he said. “In the short term, [concerning] changing the altitude; for the future, altering the process used in coordinating take-offs and landings.”
Words From Above
While the MAA has been more responsive in the community since the noise complaints increased, the same endorsement cannot be made for representatives of the FAA who were contacted by The Business Monthly for comment.
Jonathan Dean, spokesperson for the MAA, said that BWI Marshall “continues to work with the local community and the FAA to address concerns related to aircraft noise,” adding, “We are working to schedule a meeting with the FAA and local residents to further discuss the situation.”
Dean went on to point out that, in 2015, there was significant airfield construction at BWI Marshall, with one of the airport’s two primary commercial runways, 10-28, closed from late August until late November. “It runs, roughly, east to west,” he said. “When a major runway is shut down for a period of time in those circumstances, the airline traffic changes, as do the flight patterns.”
However, the construction has been complete for approximately eight months, which is why Howard County residents who are affected by the noise didn’t put much stock in that theory. As for the FAA, several representatives were contacted for comment for this article, with only spokesperson Arlene Salac from the administration’s New York office responding, and then only via the following email message.
The FAA is continuing to work with the MAA and Howard County officials regarding residents’ noise concerns. There is a combination of factors that may have contributed to an increase in noise complaints, including increased traffic volume and changes in fleet mix, as well as changes in procedures. The FAA will be attending the next meeting, which is scheduled for Sept. 12.
Requests to Salac for a phone interview with an FAA official were denied or not acknowledged.
On the Ground
That’s not particularly what the people who are coping with one jet after another flying over their neighborhoods want to hear. They include Andrea Almand, who has lived, with her husband, in Beaverbrook for the last 20 years.
She refers to the problem as “Nonstop noise at low altitude. In a letter to the Columbia Flier, another local resident wrote that it sounds like a ‘war zone.’ That’s a good description,” she said.
Almand said between the 5 a.m. hour until about midnight, “[Jets] fly over, generally every five minutes, during peak travel hours. We used to be outside all the time, but we can’t get away from it. We can’t even eat on our deck anymore. When we’re inside, we have everything closed so we don’t hear it as much.”
For the Almands, it’s made day-to-day life more of a challenge. “We’re quiet, retired people, and we’re getting ready to leave Maryland,” she said. “Something needs to be done sooner than a meeting in September.”
To quantify the issue, Jesse Chancellor, who lives with his wife and son in nearby Gaither Farms, said he counted 48 planes arriving to BWI Marshall within “about a four hour-span” on one recent Saturday afternoon.
“What’s happened is that the FAA has created pencil thin air corridors,” Chancellor said, comparing the action to “basically building an interstate highway over our neighborhood. Everybody in these flights paths around the country are kind of the sacrificial lambs. The further away they are from the flight path, the less they notice.”
Chancellor, who has “flown for business all my career,” said he can tell the difference in Gaither Farms because the altitude of the planes [used to be] high enough that I couldn’t see my house. Now, I can not only see the houses in our neighborhood, but I can distinguish yard features, like pools. When I’m on the ground, I can even tell what airline the planes belong to as they fly over.”
The FAA may be using the latest technology, but they’re also “using an outmoded and largely discredited approach to transportation planning that prioritizes efficiency over communities and health,” he said.
“Planners used to ignore the effect of cars in neighborhoods, but now they know that too many cars with no focus on the human cost can have a detrimental effect,” Chancellor said. “This is a similar situation. I think they implemented the NextGen system without a thorough study of the health and emotional effects on the people below.”
Observing that there is “much cynicism about what the FAA is doing,” Chancellor is hopeful of a resolution to the issue.
“In the recent meeting, Howard County officials seemed to get the [FAA] to open up a little bit. We are hopeful of a shift in the FAA’s approach to the problem,” he said.
And Chancellor understands the business side of the issue: how NextGen increases the capacity of airports without the facilities having to invest in runways and infrastructure. “That’s a positive. We all want that growth,” he said. “The real issue here is that there was little public involvement in this step.
“We think the MAA was as surprised by the amount of noise generated by NextGen as local residents were, and while they were initially slow to respond, recently they’ve been very supportive and very communicative, too,” he said.
Moving forward, the idea “isn’t to shift this problems to our neighbors,” Chancellor said, “but we want the FAA to disperse the flight paths” so one area doesn’t have to bear the brunt of the noise.
“After all,” he said, “we like to open our windows when we can, too.”