The Noise, the Neighbors

Sept. 6, 2006
The goal of noise mitigation, is to quell the disturbance so the complaining community groups will leave the airport alone.

The goal of noise mitigation, formal or informal, is to quell the disturbance so the complaining community groups will leave the airport and its users alone. But what typically happens? Some airports have formally terminated their improvement and/or expansion plans because community opposition has not diminished, as the airports and users had hoped. Instead, community opposition may increase with even greater intensity, even though - through informal or formal noise mitigation - an airport installs every type of noise abatement procedure known to exist and (in most cases) actually reduces noise. Why then, does this happen?

To learn the answer, consider the beginnings of noise abatement at the first two airports, in California, to design and implement such programs: Torrance (TOA) and Santa Monica (SMO). The goal was not to improve (much less expand) the airports; rather, officials wanted to close them as quickly as possible - they wanted to enact the ultimate noise mitigation measure.

However, FAA would not permit either airport to close, so Torrance and Santa Monica devised and promulgated numerous noise abatement measures and regulations, including curfews and outright bans of certain types of aircraft. The underlying purpose of these measures was not to quiet community complaints or to convince them to accept the airport - far from it. The purpose was to empower neighborhood communities with more reasons and incentives to complain - and to do so with greater intensity - in the hope that FAA would eventually relent and permit Santa Monica and Torrance to close their airports.

It stands to reason that when other airports decide to promulgate noise abatement programs, thinking it will mollify the community's will to resist and permit improvements or expansion, those programs simply won't achieve the result. Instead, community groups will behave exactly as they did (and still do at Torrance and Santa Monica) where the goal is still to close.

Regarding formal mitigation, every decision from FAA that I've studied, no matter what the decision, meets with resistance from all sides. Community groups feel their complaints are ignored; pilots feel like hostages instead of customers as they're pressured and intimidated to accept unreasonable mitigation measures; political leaders and airport management talk in circles from both sides, because political leaders fear being voted out of office by constituents and airport management fears being fired if they don't go along. Is it any wonder then, why this problem persists?

Same Problem, Different Approaches

There is no law that requires an airport proprietor to reduce noise. However, existing federal case law does permit an airport proprietor to take measures to reduce noise, provided that the measures are reasonable, non-arbitrary, and non-discriminatory. By law, the primary focus of noise mitigation must be on reasonableness, while noise reduction must be secondary.

This approach at Terry Airport (TYQ), now known as Indianapolis Executive, near Indianapolis [see sidebar] showed that all parties can quickly understand and accept the concept of reasonableness, rather than arguing about the alleged benefits of a noise reduction measure, or the amount of noise the airport will make if it improves or expands.

Realizing this, the complaining communities opted to voluntarily terminate their noise issue with Terry Airport on their own volition without FAA involvement. The airport was able to abolish all noise abatement procedures without protest, build a new jet terminal, and realize a 400 percent growth in jet traffic - of which approximately 40 percent is Stage 2. What's more, about 30 percent of the Stage 2 operations are at night after 10 p.m. Yet, no one complains. The entire process was completed in a few short months at proportionately less cost, and offers potential for any airport.

Consider two examples for noise mitigation failure ...

  • Livermore Municipal Airport (LVK) in California has tried for several years to extend its runway 25L-7R. All surrounding land use is compatible. Yet, when they initially held hearings, some 200 residents from nearby Pleasanton complained about what they said would be increased noise, etc. In response, the airport advisory commission, comprised of three pilots, enacted a "voluntary" curfew in the hope that the resistance would die out. However, at the next meeting, according to media reports, over 1,000 residents appeared and shouted down the extension, at which point the Livermore City Council formally cancelled the plan.
  • Scottsdale Airport (SDL) in Arizona completed a Part 150 NCP, installed a "voluntary" curfew along with numerous other noise abatement procedures, and asks pilots to sign a "good neighbor pledge" on the airport's website. Meanwhile, the city council recently voted 5-2 not to apply for Part 139 certification - intended to launch scheduled commuter service - when over 100 neighbors protested. Adding to the dilemma, the commuter applicants promised to use only Stage 4 aircraft and the city aviation director stated that "scheduled service would likely mean a drop in the number of charter and private flights."

Other airports that have formally altered their plans include Oakland International, San Francisco International, Burbank, Boeing Field, Ohio State University Airport, and Hollywood-Ft. Lauderdale. There are countless others, large and small, urban and rural, whose plans are stalemated because they simply have not been able to overcome noise issues (even when they seem to have every form of noise mitigation measure known to exist).

Worse, their neighbors know all about the problems at other airports and want no part of the same. They want their airport to enact even more noise abatement programs, just on principle. It becomes a vicious circle. Anyone who believes that noise abatement programs make noise issues go away can log onto and enter a request for 'airport noise.'

Getting Informal

Informal mitigation, when executed properly, can terminate a noise issue on its own volition because the mechanism can ensure in open debate that all proposed or in-place noise mitigation measures that are proven reasonable (as required by existing federal case law) are accepted; and those that are proven unreasonable are rejected. The process is completely open; the participants make all the decisions.

To focus the mitigation process on the concept of reasonableness, first make the following assumptions:

  • FAA has no leverage in the areas of federal funding or the Surplus Property Act, and would be powerless to prevent the proprietor from closing the airport.
  • A motion to close the airport is the ultimate noise mitigation measure; but as with any other measure, it would have to be proven either reasonable or unreasonable.
  • The airport is a noise-producing entity; is presumed to be a nuisance to the surrounding communities; and all surrounding land use is considered incompatible (greater than 65 DNL).
  • The airport has no economic value or benefit whatsoever.

Each participant receives the opportunity to propose any measure they deem appropriate, and state their best case for reasonableness or unreasonableness for a consensus by the participants.

FAA has never questioned this process, nor has it led to any form of formal mitigation or litigation, because participants have been 100 percent satisfied with the process and the results. FAA will be required to render any decision within its very narrow standards, procedures, and criteria. These hinge mostly on federal funding issues and the integrated noise model, with little or no regard to reasonableness.

[This approach failed in two federal court cases: Naples and Van Nuys. In lay terms, the court essentially ruled, and I agree, that there was a noise issue simply because people complained and the integrated noise model failed to address or provide a solution to the complaints. Worse, the noise issues at both airports remain very much alive.]

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Informal mitigation is not intended to replace formal mitigation. It supplements it so that airports can successfully complete their improvement or expansion projects, and avoid the long and bitter feuds that handcuff so many projects. The public must be able to air and debate its concerns based upon reasonableness and beyond the limits of noise monitoring, technical analysis, and the integrated noise model.