National Airport Noise Solution
The introductory sentence of the The Chicago Sun Times article accurately describes the news from a local perspective:
“A revised O’Hare Airport night runway plan could reduce jet noise for nearly 68,000 Chicago area residents during the overnight hours, according to a new analysis released in advance of a key vote Friday on the proposal.”
That simple declarative sentence somewhat understates the significance of this compromise, perhaps because it has yet to be finally adopted. Ms. Rossi, the local transportation beat reporter for the newspaper, may be excused for not explaining its national significance.
An apt description in terms of national noise policy might be “revolutionary,” but even that descriptor would be misleading. Revolutions connote tearing down walls by opponent. The Night Runway Rotation Plan represents a coming together of groups which have historically had problems of finding a common ground for compromise. The participants in this process have overcome the historical “balkanization” that characterizes the debates about airport noise.
What brought about this Kumbaya moment?
→ All of the participants recognized the importance of O’Hare International Airport to their economies,
→ All accepted the premise that those who benefit from O’Hare should share in the negative concomitant.
Airport Noise tends to be a polarizing public policy issue and splits the “stakeholders” in multiple dimensions.
- The airlines see airports as economic engines and would prefer to maximize their use of those public utilities.
- The FAA’s foremost consideration is SAFETY, but also bears a responsibility to maintain their efficiencies (the runways are federal tax dollar investments) and to minimize environmental impacts.
- The operator/owner/sponsor of these transportation hubs holds a bifurcated perspective—HUGE POSITVE = economic impact; HUGE NEGATIVE = effects on the neighbors/voters.
- The surrounding communities, as represented by elected mayors, council members, commissioners, etc.—are primarily focused on noise and pollution. As demonstrated by the 1980s effort to close Washington National Airport, at a secondary or even tertiary level, must admit that the attractive nuisance (called DCA or ORD or ___) means jobs for their citizens.
When brought together to try to resolve airport problems, the individual perspectives tend to be centrifugal rather than conducive to consensus. The ordinary debate, by which such public policy processes are ordinarily resolved, quickly evolves into a zero sum game and all “compromise” propositions are viewed with legitimate and historical biases.
This negative pattern was broken.
The first ingredient in the evolution of the was leadership. It began with the direction of the Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emmanuel and two executive decisions: (i) that ORD MUST be a good neighbor and (ii) that he should hire as the Director of the Department of Aviation a professional who came to the job with airport expertise. He did both.
He also used his good graces with the Administration to convey his good intentions to the head of the FAA Michael Huerta. As leader of the federal agency for air traffic safety, airport infrastructure and environmental stewardship, the Administrator adopted the enlightened Chicago position and conveyed the strategy of trying to find a win/win solution through his organization.
The direct recipient of the federal policy goal was the FAA Regional Administrator Barry Cooper and in turn he made it clear to his staff, charged with the review of proposals, that they should keep an open mind. The “albatross” of the OMP findings did not preclude their fair participation.
A key ingredient to this affirmative recipe was Ginger S. Evans, Commissioner, Chicago Department of Aviation. As a 30 year veteran with a strong technical balance, she was able to discern the difference between the unrealistic and the workable among potential noise mitigation strategies. With her experience, she was comfortable dealing with the hues of grays which are the primary tones of the spectrum of compromise.
The Suburban O’Hare Commission, Fair Allocation In Runways and the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission resolved to find an answer to their mutual problems. The new approach was best defined by the following quote from the Sun Times:
“However, Schiller Park Mayor Barbara Piltaver noted that all the suburbs around O’Hare will benefit from its expansion, so they all should all share night jet noise.
Schiller Park and portions of Chicago have been especially hard hit by the 2013 flight path changes because the airfield’s two longest runways are aimed right at them.
‘It bothers me when people say, `We don’t want planes coming over our towns,’ Piltaver said. ‘You all benefit from O’Hare Airport. I think everyone has to share the burden.’”
The specifics of the Night Runway Rotation Plan, as described by Ms. Rossi, are as follows:
“The proposal would rotate night runways every week for 12 weeks, so every area around O’Hare would be assured at least some weeks of night peace. And it would establish a fairly predictable calendar of when certain runways would absorb what city experts estimated would be 45 arrivals and 35 departures each night.
Portions of Chicago’s 45th Ward, Elk Grove Village, Schiller Park, Itasca and Wood Dale could experience night jets in six of the 12 weeks in the rotation — the most of 45 communities within 5 miles of O’Hare, according to an analysis by the Chicago Department of Aviation released Thursday.
The plan would alternate between diagonal runways affecting only suburban areas, and east-west parallel runways that currently shoulder most flights. Those parallel runways affect areas east of O’Hare, such as Chicago and Schiller Park, and west of O’Hare, including Bensenville, Wood Dale and Itasca.”
It is helpful that the Chicago Department of Aviation has reviewed and confirmed that the plan has significant promise, but the imprimatur of an independent, recognized consultant helped carry the consensus of the communities during their period of gestation. Given their naturally territorial perspectives, one of the participants could have questioned the contents and defeated the consensus.
Equally importantly, the bona fides of the technical experts (noise, air traffic safety & efficiency, community impact) were recognized by the FAA review team. These consultants did not have a track record of always finding for the airlines or a consistent pattern of advocacy for the community. The specific architecture of the flight patterns proposed, the details of the AT procedures, the precision of the implementation plans and even the vocabulary of the document were all written in terms recognizable by the FAA civil servants; so the plan was presented as balancing safety, efficiency and noise abatement in a practical, acceptable form.
The six month experiment period still remains and the data developed by those real flight patterns will be dispositive.
What is notable on a national basis is that with the proper leadership and based on independent proposals, a final noise solution may be a win/win.