D.C. communities all shook up as Reagan National-bound planes change their landing patterns

December 2, 2011

Lakia McDuffie was sleeping in her fourth-floor apartment at Wingate Towers & Gardens in Southwest Washington when a light flooding into her bedroom woke her up. Then her windows rattled. She wondered what was going on.

It was a plane landing at Reagan National Airport.

Since that night in the spring, incoming airliners have regularly flown by her building at late hours, McDuffie said.

The lights became so bothersome that she covered her bedroom window with a blanket.

The neighborhood isn’t under the normal flight path of landing jets — planes usually approach along the Potomac River — but that changed this spring.

National Airport began overnight milling, paving and other repair work on its main runway, rerouting air traffic to a secondary landing strip, which points directly toward the neighborhoods of Bellevue in Southwest and Congress Heights in Southeast. While the main runway is used during the day, it is closed at night, and air traffic redirects to the secondary runway.

Residents said the worst part is that the work occurs each night, including weekends, between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., depending on the weather.

The planes fly low enough that houses vibrate and people are shaken awake.

“Sometimes, it sounds like you’re right at the airport,” said Lloyd Logan, a former Independence Air employee who is now a commissioner for Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C. He lives at the edge of Fort Carroll Park in Southeast.

Although news releases were issued to local media and information on the construction is posted on the Web site of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the communities under the new flight paths were not directly notified of the changes, said Kimberly Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the airports authority, which operates National and Dulles International Airport.

The airports authority levies a $5,000 fine on companies whose planes exceed an 85-decibel limit set by the airport for approaching planes. The Federal Aviation Administration regularly measures the sound of jets and gives the information to National, an airports authority spokesman said.

But the sound doesn’t tell the full story. Dionne Brown, a commissioner for ANC 8D, whose district includes Bellevue, likened the vibrations in her home to the early seconds of the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that shook the region Aug. 23. 

William McHugh, who has lived on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SW in Bellevue since April 2010, said the first time he heard a plane over his home in the spring, he thought it was going to crash.

“We find this very annoying and unacceptable to have this type of traffic flying over a residential neighborhood in the middle of the night,” McHugh wrote in a July letter to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “It is very dangerous to one’s health to be suddenly awakened by these planes.”

Norton met with constituents of ANC 8D to hear their concerns and asked National about the problem. Norton said National expects to complete the runway work by April.

“There is probably no way out of this dilemma,” Norton said. “You have to do the work on the main runway.”

The frequency of the late-night flights is what residents find most disturbing, but it should let up soon. By early January, construction crews will begin work after 1 a.m., 10 minutes after the last scheduled arrival, which will allow planes to land on the main runway instead.

Some residents have complained to National that the planes were exceeding the airport’s curfew. National, however, has no curfew, said Michael Jeck, the airports authority’s deputy manager for aeroacoustics. Planes can land at night as long as they don’t exceed the airport’s 85-decibel limit.

Decades ago, most large planes never met that standard, so incoming flights were smaller and less intrusive, Jeck said. Today, most large planes meet those requirements.

“It’s a catch-22. A quiet airplane is going to be louder than no airplane at all,” Jeck said. “We can’t penalize the industry for flying quieter planes.”

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