The Truth About Airport Noise

by Michael Lentin

It should come as no surprise that airports, and the thousands of aircrafts that fly in and out of them each month, produce a lot of noise. There has been significant advancement in noise reduction technology over the years, and older, louder airplanes are phasing out as newer, quieter models become available. Still, with overhead jet noise averaging around 65 decibels (the “annoying” mark), even the most sophisticated technology can only do so much to alleviate the effect of airport noise on surrounding communities.

Many cities across the country, from Fort Lauderdale to Minneapolis to San Francisco, have implemented Noise Mitigation programs, which provide modifications to residential homes in order to counteract the noise created by aircraft traffic. Homeowners within a specific area or “noise contour”, deemed by local officials as experiencing high levels of airport noise, may qualify for federally-funded renovations. This Soundproofing overhaul can include new Windows, doors, insulation, and ventilation systems.

However, traffic patterns can change over time, and the areas affected by airport noise can grow faster than the noise contour maps are updated. So, what do you do if your once-peaceful neighborhood has slowly turned to chaos? If you’re like the citizens of Chicago, San Antonio, Los Angeles, and New York…you fight back!

In Chicago, citizens are actually dealing with noise issues from two airports. A recent runway addition at O’Hare International Airport has significantly affected the Northwest side of the city, which previously had experienced little to no jet noise. While a study is underway that could possibly lower the noise threshold required for the government to pay for Soundproofing, it is not set to be completed until December 2015. Local residents are urging city officials to expedite this study, and they are claiming that previous studies did not accurately convey the affect this new runway would have on once-peaceful neighborhoods.

A local coalition of concerned citizens, known as FAiR (Fair Allocation in Runways), serves as the leading voice for affected residents and has even encouraged homeowners to appeal their property taxes, based on the belief that added airport noise has subtracted from their homes’ value. O’Hare currently has a voluntary “Fly Quiet” program, which encourages pilots to choose flight paths over less-populated areas. FAiR has urged O’Hare to make this program mandatory but has thus far been denied. Still, this group has seen its agenda adopted by many local officials who are inundated with noise complaints from their constituents. One such official, U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, has said that many Chicagoans are “watching their quality of life rapidly deteriorate” because of the increased jet noise. Indeed, complaints filed to the city-run hotline and website totaled over 30,000 in August of this year…more than all of 2013 combined.

Judie Simpson, one such complainant, lives 10 miles from the airport and is not located within the current noise contour. However, due to the recent flight pattern changes, she regularly experiences jet noise ranging from 65 decibels to 85 decibels. One flyover actually reached 94.9 decibels, which is the equivalent of a jackhammer at 50 feet away! Because the noise contour map is not expected to be updated until the O’Hare Modernization plan is completed in 2020, some families are taking matters into their own hands. The Mulcrone family recently spent $15k of their hard-earned money to Soundproof their home, because the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission said they wouldn’t be eligible for federal assistance for at least another 6 years, maybe longer. Mrs. Mulcrone found comfort after joining FAiR back in March and says “Without FAIR, we would have no voice. No one else is listening.”

In addition to O’Hare, Chicago officials are fielding many noise complaints from Midway International Airport as well. After a new flight path opened in February, 400 additional calls were received in just a few months. While the new flight path calls for pilots to follow Interstate 55 on their approach, residents say they are taking shortcuts over a residential area. With the help of FAiR, these citizens are pushing for the route to be moved north of the highway, over factories instead of homes. While Midway also has a “Fly Quiet” program which encourages travel over less-populated areas, it is not required.

In San Antonio, airport officials are attempting to implement a new noise exposure plan, which would reduce the number of homeowners who are eligible for federally-funded Soundproofing. As expected, the reaction to this proposed change has been anything but quiet. So many people showed up for a public hearing in October that a second date had to be set. Some residents, like Joe Donahue, were previously told that they qualified for Soundproofing assistance but that is no longer the case. The Federal Aviation Administration requires plans to be evaluated every 5 years but, according to local homeowner Abigail Antuna, airport noise has only gotten worse since the plan was last reviewed. While San Antonio International Airport has phased out the use of older, louder aircraft, it appears the new technology has not done enough to appease local residents. As the current noise plan undergoes review, only time will tell how the citizens of San Antonio will react.

In Los Angeles, airport commissioners recently approved an $18 million grant to be used towards Soundproofing of nearly 750 Inglewood homes that are directly in the flight path of planes traveling to Los Angeles International Airport. Combined with over $13 million from the Federal Aviation Authority, a total of $32 million will be allocated to these renovations. My News LA describes the Soundproofing as including “the installation of double-paned Windows, solid-core doors, fireplace doors and dampers, attic baffles, insulation and other upgrades capable of keeping airport noise at 65 decibels or below”. A result of a 2006 legal settlement with Inglewood and nearby cities, LAX was obligated to fulfill these requests in order to move forward with its expansion plans. They are also to work together with local districts to seek input on how the airport can address the concerns of their neighbors. Another detail of the settlement required LAX officials to petition the Federal Aviation Administration to reduce overnight noise by prohibiting flights over the city between the hours of 12:00 and 6:30 am. This petition was recently denied by the FAA.

In New York City, residents are also dealing with noise from two incredibly busy airports: John F. Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport. Experts agree that the noise is steadily increasing, likely due to the NY/NJ/PA airspace redesign and satellite technology which narrows the path that planes follow. Like Chicago, a local coalition has formed to combat airport noise in the Big Apple. The mission of Quiet Skies is to “support aircraft noise and pollution mitigation efforts of citizens and elected officials in Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and New Jersey”. As president of the Queens branch of Quiet Skies, Janet McEneaney recently participated in a rally to protest increased residential noise as a result of flight pattern changes. According to McEneaney, neighborhoods are regularly subjected to jet noise over 80 decibels…well beyond the “annoying” mark set by the FAA. She states, “The noise that we’re subjected to is harmful to our health, ruins our quality of life, is not adequately measured by FAA and is never used to plan for future flight procedures”.

Quiet Skies has helped to bring local officials and concerned citizens together to discuss the growing problem via noise roundtables. Furthermore, the Port Authority recently agreed to pay $8 million for an environmental consulting firm to conduct noise compatibility studies for JKF and LaGuardia and provide recommendations for reducing air traffic noise. Once the FAA approves these studies, the Port Authority could also be eligible for federal funds to further address the issue. In the meantime, citizens are encouraging fellow residents to seek property tax-exemptions due to problems with air traffic noise. According to one concerned homeowner, the city of New York makes more money as air traffic increases ($128 million in 2013), yet the residential taxes are increasing while property values fall.

There are many resources available for residents across the county, from the above-mentioned local coalitions to online forums, where concerned citizens can learn more about what steps to take to counteract increased air traffic noise. You can learn more about the effect of airplane noise pollution on your health and even follow a real-time map of local flights and their associated decibel levels. With health on the line, and airline traffic ever increasing, it appears this conflict between airports and neighbors will not be quick to conclude.

Additional Resources:

Noise Quest
Our Air Space
Quiet Skies (NYC)
FAiR (Chicago)
Regional Solution (LA)
No Noise

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