by Ted Baldwin
Serious federal attention to aircraft noise began around 1960, largely in response to community concerns (okay, complaints) related to the introduction of early air carrier jets (“airliners”), in particular the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8.
For the past half century, the federal government has largely focused its attention on aircraft noise associated with succeeding generations of airline jets at commercial service airports. General aviation (g.a.) airports, g.a. jets, propeller aircraft, and helicopters have been a secondary focus of attention to all branches of the federal government, as illustrated by the following examples:
- Legislative branch: Congress has focused on laws phasing out older noisier aircraft over 75,000 pounds, which largely represent air carrier jets.
- Executive branch: The FAA’s development of the Integrated Noise Model (INM) has largely focused on modeling air carrier jets, as exemplified by the database’s most extensive coverage for that category of aircraft, with increasing dependence on substitute modeling surrogates as aircraft weight decreases.
- Judicial branch: Legal decisions have largely accepted arguments that significant noise exposure and associated liability extend only to the 65 decibel (dB) Day-Night Average Sound Level (DNL) contour, on which g.a. aircraft and helicopters have relatively little effect; typically the 65 DNL contour from these aircraft alone encompass little – if any – off-airport land.
To build on the “ocean” metaphor in the title of this posting, the airline jet noise “tide” is ebbing, largely as the result of federal legislation and FAA regulations that force the retirement of 14 C.F. R. Part 36 Stage 1 and 2 jets over 75,000 pounds, and require applications for new “type certification” to meet Stage 4 requirements. Local noise abatement and land use compatibility programs have complemented these federal actions (and frequently benefited from federal funding and implementation support).
One potential federal response might be to declare “mission accomplished” on the noise front, and turn the focus to areas where the tide is rising – both literally and figuratively; e.g., emissions-related contributions to climate change, which appear to be associated with storms that threaten coastal airports and result in operational delays at airports at all elevations.
However, recent actions show that the federal government is taking a different approach, and turning its focus to previously neglected – or at least lower-profile – noise issues associated with g.a. airports, g.a., jets, and even helicopters. Again, this “changing tide” is reflected across the board at the federal level:
- Legislative branch: In the “FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012,” Congress prohibited, after December 31, 2015, regular operation in the contiguous 48 states of civil aircraft weighing 75,000 pounds or less that do not meet Stage 3 noise levels. See http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2013-07-02/pdf/2013-15843.pdf.)
- Executive branch: As summarized in its “Aviation Noise Impacts Research Roadmap,” the FAA is supporting a number of initiatives recognizing a broader range of noise issues, such as the accuracy of the INM for modeling g.a. aircraft and enhanced modeling of taxiway noise.
- Executive Branch: In a more applied case, the FAA adopted a final rule on July 6, 2012 that requires helicopter pilots to use the North Shore Helicopter Route when operating along the north shore of Long Island, New York. The purpose of the rule is to “protect and enhance public welfare by maximizing utilization of the existing route flown by helicopter traffic one mile off the north shore of Long Island and thereby reducing helicopter overflights and attendant noise disturbance over nearby communities.” (see http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/media/NYNShoreHelicopterFinalRule.pdf)
- Judicial branch: In a recent opinion that denied a petition by the Helicopter Association International (HAI) for judicial review of the preceding mandatory helicopter route, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit supported the other executive branches in their focus on lower levels of noise exposure related to operations by non-airline aircraft. (see http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/1C20D137DFF53DAD85257BA600539826/$file/12-1335-1446255.pdf)
It should be noted that the Long Island helicopter route rule addressed in the preceding two bullets was initiated by two federal legislators representing Long Island residents – Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Tim Bishop – who conducted a meeting in October 2007 with the FAA, local helicopter operators, and airport proprietors to specifically address noise complaints stemming from helicopter operations along the north shore of Long Island. While only the executive and judicial branches took formal action, the process involved significant input by these legislators as well.
The mandatory helicopter route is particularly significant because it represents divergence from several prior federal positions related to the longstanding “line in the sand” that the federal government has drawn at the 65 decibel (dB) Day-Night Average Sound Level (DNL) contour:
- First, it reflects major divergence from the prior federal position that reduction of sensitive land uses exposed to noise above 65 dB DNL was a de facto prerequisite for approval and support of noise abatement or compatible land use actions. In its brief responding to the HAI petition, the FAA acknowledged that the route would not produce any benefit at or above this level of exposure, and noted that it “has authority to act without first demonstrating that a specific noise level has been exceeded.” Furthermore, the FAA brief cited the “Long Island North Shore Helicopter Route Environmental Study,” which it had tasked the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center to conduct. That study concluded that prior to the adoption of the mandatory route, no residential population along the route was exposed to noise above 45 dB DNL, even on busy holiday weekends (e.g., around Memorial Day and July 4th, 2011).
- Second, it reflected the first time – of which this author is aware – that the FAA relied on complaints as a fully sufficient basis for adoption of a formal noise abatement procedure. In perhaps its most blunt statement regarding complaints, the FAA brief responding to the HAI petition stated “[w]hen people take the time to complain about helicopter noise to the FAA and their elected officials, there is a noise problem.”
The FAA’s justification for and defense of adopting a mandatory noise abatement rule based on noise complaints and with open acknowledgement that the benefit outside the 65 dB DNL contour by a 20dB margin is an extraordinary divergence from decades of FAA policy and decisions regarding noise compatibility actions. As just one example, readers may recall that in its determination that the Naples (FL) Airport Authority (NAA) adoption of a ban on Stage 2 operations “was unreasonable and unjustly discriminatory” and therefore in violation of federal law, in part because the “NAA’s use of complaints … does not support a finding that the Stage 2 ban is reasonable.” (”Director’s Determination,” FAA Docket No. 16-01-15, March 10, 2003.)
These recent actions by all three branches of the federal government clearly acknowledge that aircraft noise impacts worthy of addressing in the most formal manner need not be justified by federal land use compatibility guidelines, are not limited to particularly noisy aircraft, and do not even require quantification in decibel-based terms.
While the applicability of these actions as precedents in addressing other noise concerns across the U.S. will undoubtedly be the topic of vigorous debate for some time, airport noise stakeholders – including aircraft operators, pilots, airport proprietors, state and local government land use jurisdictions, airport neighbors, and others – should follow the federal lead in taking a fresh look at creative bases for demonstrating benefits and considering – or reconsidering – the full spectrum of noise abatement and compatible land use measures that might be applied to aircraft noise sources of local concern.