Two Approaches to resolving conflict among neighbors, the airport and the FAA over NOISE

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Airports are essential nodes to national and international commerce. As shown in the above two graphs, it is also clear that these transportation facilities also generate noise. Both airports, O’Hare International and Phoenix Sky Harbor, have recently had their flight tracks altered and now those changes impact different neighbors. The below two articles show different approaches by the local denizens, by the airport proprietor and by the FAA.

The predicates to the ORD dispute involve both the City’s capital improvement project called the O’Hare Modernization Program and the FAA’s implementation of the NextGen technology. The conjoint impact of those two actions was an increase in the noise experienced by some of the residents, above their prior impacts.

In the first case, the City of Chicago, the proprietor of ORD, and in particular the Mayor, listened to the people who live near the airport. It is also notable that the local citizens took an approach of developing alternative solutions after beginning to carefully collect technical research about the new noise impact. It is far from a complete process, but now, “Chicago is asking the Federal Aviation Administration to delay action that would cause ‘irreparable damage’ to diagonal runways slated for closure at O’Hare International Airport, officials said Monday,” according to Jon Hilkevitch, the Tribune’s excellent transportation reporter.

That is a significant step in two dimensions. First, by keeping the diagonal runways, the Chicago Department of Aviation preserves the option to use these two to disperse the noise. ORD’s management is willing to explore options and the community is being proactive in defining alternatives. Second, by deferring the destruction of 14R and 14L, the City is retaining the capacity of these two existing runways. With the continued existence of them, the need to expand may be delayed.

With this significant policy action, the City’s and FAA’s hearings on the existing noise issues will be able to go forward and could possibly result in immediate implementation of short and long term solutions.

The relief, so desired by the neighbors, may be realized sooner rather than later.

Phoenix is slightly different. The airport did not create a change to its physical plant. The primary catalyst of complaints was the FAA’s initiation of new air traffic control procedures available under the technology, called NextGen. That is a national FAA program which is intended to increase capacity at airports and in the National Airspace System. As to PHX, NextGen is intended to improve efficiency and to enhance the environmental performance at this airport.

The design and implementation of airspace architecture is complicated and communicating these arcane actions is difficult. The reports about the FAA’s process of explaining the intended changes are mixed with the federal agency asserting that it attempted to best communicate the new flight pattern, while the City of Phoenix, PHX and the citizens have expressed their disappointment with these efforts to reach a meaningful dialogue. Since these are both subjective opinions, the adage, that perceptions are real to person(s) expressing them, applies here.

As announced in the below Phoenix New Times, the City of Phoenix has “finally” filed a lawsuit against the FAA. The complaint alleges that the “the Federal Aviation Administration [has] unilaterally impos[ed] flight path changes at Sky Harbor International Airport last September without due process. The changes have affected thousands of Valley residents and were made without consulting the city or its aviation department.” The City issued a press release filled with frustration.

Their motivation is clearly that they want a court to order the FAA to stop flying its NextGen procedures. Those enhancements of safety, efficiency and the environment include Airport Surface Detection Equipment — Model X (ASDE-X), Optimized Profile Descent (OPD), Performance Based Navigation (PBN) procedures, basic rerouting, and Time Based Flow Management (TBFM). OPD and PBN are systems which guide flights more precisely over their intended patterns—minimizing the “swath” of the noise imposition, but also concentrating it.

Just the recitation of the procedures at issue should make it clear that a Federal District Judge will have to learn the details of these technical aspects. While reviewing the record of the FAA’s “communications” with the City, PHX and the neighbors may be something with which the Judge is familiar. However, the fashioning of an order to the FAA will be difficult if he finds for the City. For example, if the jurist decides for the plaintiffs, he could compel the FAA to return to its previous ATC patterns and that would be an easy judgment to write. At the same time, such a mandate to return to the before NextGen architecture might:

  • Decrease the capacity of PHX and harm its economy.
  • Return the corridors to the old pattern and inflict noise on those communities, and
  • Diminish the savings of$14.7 million per year of fuel costs and reduction of the carbon footprint by 51,000 tons per year.

Those are points which the US government will likely make in the case.

One can infer that the City’s real goal in this litigation is to find a win/win alternative, something between the old and the new tracks. Divining such a solution is not among the skill sets of most federal district judges. Each alternative has complex ramifications like the above mentioned three consequences. For example, on a micro basis, selecting one flight pattern may favor those impacted by NextGen, while moving the noise to another community.

Such multivariate, complex solutions, based on acoustics, aircraft performance, navigational capabilities, particulate matter, weather and SAFETY, will require massive submissions by experts on both sides of the case and lengthy testimony/cross examinations. Then the judge will require substantial time to determine what may be decided as a matter of law, not equity. N.B. judges are very uncomfortable imposing their judgment over the FAA about safety.

If the district court orders the FAA to abandon the NextGen benefits at PHX and if it issues a mandate for the appropriate consultation procedure, the US will be compelled to appeal the decision and that will further lengthen the process. Such a decision would be cited by other potential petitioners in asserting that the FAA must roll back the local NextGen ATC procedures. Such a precedent would endanger the national benefits of NextGen. That is to say, litigation probably means YEARS before an acceptable final solution is found by the court(s).

Litigation was the City of Phoenix’s last choice and maybe the case will be moved by the Judge to mediation. The City of Chicago has made a significant first step toward a win/win solution, although there are many hurdles over which all must navigate before a final solution is reached.

ARTICLE: Chicago agrees to reprieve on dismantling O’Hare’s diagonal runways

ARTICLE: Phoenix Is Finally Suing the FAA Over Airplane Noise

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6 Comments on "Two Approaches to resolving conflict among neighbors, the airport and the FAA over NOISE"

  1. “Return the corridors to the old pattern and inflict noise on those communities” The previous flightpath followed the riverbed which is primarily industrial and agricultural. There were virtually zero complaints about noise along this corridor. The new path takes hundreds of heavy jets low and loud over previously quiet neighborhoods. While the city disputes the dollar savings realized using the new procedure, for the sake of discussion, I don’t think any Phoenix resident would be willing to sacrifice our historic districts for $14 million / year. Moreover, the capacity argument goes out the window when you consider PHX serviced 25% more operations/day ten years ago than now. The new departure procedures have had a very real and very negative impact on our lives and the implementation a tragedy inflicted by a government supposedly “for the people.” The new RNAV procedures only benefit airlines and the people bear the cost.

  2. Yes, I, too, find the tone of this article one-sided. I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains, an hour, approximately 60 miles, and two counties away from SFO, and even further from OAK … in a very rural, formerly very quiet mountain community in which I specifically CHOSE to buy my home 15 years ago, in spite of the lack of urban conveniences, BECAUSE quiet is important to me. Three months ago, we woke up to find the FAA had unilaterally moved two aviation superhighways over our home. Now we get 260 – 280 planes … on both arrival and departure paths, primarily to SFO, but also departing from OAK and arriving to SJC … flying over our canyon. And because of the “continuous descent” methodologies … and the FAA’s need to bulk up the numbers of people close to the airport for whom noise has been “reduced,” in order to justify doing no environmental impact studies … the planes are flying very low. Planes arriving to SFO pass over us at 7500 – 9500 feet … but the homes in our canyon are at 1800 – 3000 feet. Planes arriving to SJC fly over at 5000 feet (one last night flew under 5000 feet). The disturbance is horrific and extremely upsetting. The impact on this area — once so peaceful and amazingly full of wildlife — is literally heartbreaking to the thousands of people here who are raising their voices to join those of other NextGen-afflicted communities around the nation. And we are told to expect far more traffic than the 20+ planes an hour we are now getting.

    There is nothing unintentional about the concentration of noise and pollution over narrow bands, and the FAA made NO real effort to notify communities in advance of what it was planning. Just the opposite, in fact. The agency claims here to have performed “extensive community outreach” through a website, from which the public could download the Environmental Assessment Draft and submit comments, and public workshops. This all sounds vaguely credible, until you look closer and realize that the only notification anyone was given by the FAA of the EXISTENCE of this website, this draft, and these workshops was a single, mouse-print “legal notices” ad taken out on a single day (December 9) in 2012 in 4 Bay Area newspapers. Don’t subscribe to the newspaper? Don’t read the classified? Just didn’t read them that day? Too bad for you! Guess you DESERVE to have your home value drop by 30% and be forced to endure the horrific, ugly noise of 280 planes going overhead every day and waking you up 4 times a night. Oh, and the public comment windows? The FAA made it as short as it legally could. Admittedly, it also sent out a “notification letter” that it was considering modifying the “NorCal Metroplex” to politicians at basically every level of government 2 or 3 years ago … but this letter was so vague, so insistent that there would be no ground changes and implied so strongly that there would be no real impacts to anyone, that literally none of the politicians who received it understood there was anything in it about which they needed to warn their constituents.

    In short, the FAA behaved deliberately and with extreme foresight to meet the letter of notification law while minimizing actual notification. Only communities that had already been battling the FAA futilely on the noise front were “plugged in” enough to be aware of the existence of NextGen or the EAD in time to comment on it. This was all clearly intentional, and despicable.

    Is it unreasonable for people who bought NOWHERE near an airport to object to having their homes made to sound like an extension of the runway of a for-profit airport and for-profit airlines an hour and several counties away? To not being able to use their yards, or have their windows open? To no longer being able to sleep uninterrupted at night? To not having their pets cower under beds and tables? To having entire hours of the day during which not a single SECOND is free of ugly droning engine noise?

    The arguments about fuel savings are disingenuous. The fuel savings benefit the airports and the airlines. The external costs — concentrated noise and emissions — are being ENTIRELY heaped onto the unfortunate neighborhoods and communities selected by the FAA to endure the extremely unfair and disproportionate burdens of NextGen flight routes. The noise “regulations” would be laughably offensive if they didn’t make you want to cry with how unfair they are … from the use of “A” weighting that strips out the unpleasant bass frequencies of engine noise … to the FAA’s use of a “65”dbA limit rejected by most civilized countries as excessive … to the “averaging” of levels over a 24-hour period. No weight given to the outrageous frequency of the events — the mind-numbing, insanity-inducing repetition of having that horrible noise happening again and again and again, every minute or two … or to the quality or nature of the noise, which is so particularly ugly and grinding and awful.

    The FAA didn’t simply fail to grasp how impactful what it was doing would be. It understood perfectly well, and worked very hard to avoid having to deal with an informed public in advance of the rollout (first, by exempting itself from environmental reports and public hearings, and second by designing its “notification” process to notify as few people as it possibly could). In fact, the FAA specifically designed a methodology … “Next Noise Reduction” … to justify exempting itself from having to perform environmental impact studies in these neighborhoods. As long as it could say it was reducing noise (even a little) for more people than it was increasing it for (even a lot), then it can pass the new routes off as “reducing noise” … even though the effect on the impacted neighborhoods is exactly and extremely the opposite. It is morally perverse to say “Look, we have reduced noise for 98% by funneling it all over these 2%! Sure, the lives of the 2% are now utterly miserable, but who cares about them? We stripped away every protection they were entitled to under NEPA in order to ram through the changes desired by the airplane manufacturers and the industry we’re supposed to be regulating, and isn’t that the important thing? We can’t possibly change anything now, because the ECONOMY! Oh, and SAFETY! Oh, and reduced EMISSIONS! (You know, except for the 2%!)

    As one of the people who was NOT notified, NOT given a chance to comment in advance, and NOT given a chance to decide two years ago whether I was willing to assume the risk of staying in my neighborhood given what the FAA was considering, I have never felt so abused by my government as I do right now. The impact of NextGen on afflicted communities around the country is horrific, unfair, inequitable, disproportionate, extreme, and designed ONLY to benefit the airline industry. I loved this home and this community, and I am being driven from my home by a horror that my Senator assures me the FAA has assured HER is not “impactful.” Guess what? It is an impact I can’t live with. I work at home, and after a few hours of this every day, I can’t focus or hold my thoughts together. The cost to my husband and me in diminished property value may, according to statistics we’ve seen, be as much as 30%. That is an ENORMOUS chunk of our life’s savings, inflicted on us at an age where we cannot possibly recoup the loss.

    The FAA is notorious for dragging its feet through legal battles, and winning by wearing down its opponents through attrition, endlessly deep pockets, and the endless playing of the SAFETY card, even when what it is doing has little or no basis in safety at all. I won’t be able to wait this out … I’m ready to claw my own skin off each day after four hours of ugly overhead noise where once I heard only hawks and owls … but I desperately hope that some judge WILL do the right thing for the taxpayers and homeowners so terribly affected by this injustice.

    If the national benefits of NextGen are so important that it’s worth imposing such extreme and significant costs on a small number of communities and neighborhoods, then “we as a nation” (airline industry? Congress?) should be willing to SHARE those costs. Buy my house, Boeing, FAA, Congress. You’ve effectively stolen it from me — pay me for it.

    • Thank you for your lengthy and heartfelt response. The original post addressed the process to resolve conflict after the air air traffic route has been implemented. Most of your concerns are directed at the notice and process which the FAA followed before adopting a plan. That’s relatively good news. The FAA’s judgment on technical issues (like safety or even efficiency) is something that Judges are unlikely to question. However, procedural compliance is a matter with which courts have great willingness to reverse.

      Sandy Murdock

    • Outstanding comments and insights Molly Jay

      We are now living this nightmare in DC

    • Molly Jay: I am so sorry. I agree with you that the Feds should buy your home: at pre-NextGen fair market value, and help you find and relocate to a new home that is similar to how your home used to be. Either that, or in my opinion, the Feds should abandon NextGen. (I hate NextGen!)

      You hit the real nail on the head. I don’t know of ANYONE who was genuinely notified about this or permitted to raise their concerns. I have also read that the FAA studies allegedly used ambient — instead of transient — noise studies to determine environmental impact. That is a sick joke. The problem is transient noise. Duh! That’s what disturbs our peace. That’s what wakes us up. Not ambient noise.

      Honestly, I consider this Eminent Domain abuse at its finest. Shame on the Feds who authorized this garbage! Best thing to do? Find out who among our lawmakers authorized this garbage, and vote them out this coming election!

  3. The old flight paths affected far fewer residential areas than now. NextGen may save fuel and permit more flights; but it comes at the expense of diminishing the health and quality of life of a huge swath of people across the nation.

    Save in fuel, pay in physical and mental health care.

    I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have the opposite problem.

    But honestly, where’s Due Process and Just Compensation? Because this is — in my opinion –clearly a case of a massive abuse of Eminent Domain.

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