Jet Noise Has Increased, Neighbors Say

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 2, 2007

Aircraft noise from flights in and out of Reagan National Airport has steadily increased in some Northern Virginia neighborhoods since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, according to a new study by a major homeowners group.

The McLean Citizens Association said that an analysis of government data from sound monitoring stations and flight track records shows that air traffic noise in eastern McLean has increased an average of 3.6 decibels. In Great Falls, the increase has averaged 2.4 decibels.

In both locations, the total noise level is about 55 decibels; the EPA says that anything above that is unhealthy and interferes with daily activity. The Federal Aviation Administration sets 65 decibels as the acceptable maximum for aircraft noise.

In a letter last month to Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), the association said that air traffic controllers and pilots are routinely ignoring noise abatement guidelines that call for outbound flights to avoid residential neighborhoods by following the Potomac River to the American Legion Bridge before turning off. Many descending flights pass over McLean between the George Washington Parkway and Georgetown Pike, according to the letter.

Paul Wieland, a retired Air Force officer and co-chairman of the association's environmental committee who helped complete the study, said in the letter that although printouts of flight tracks don't reflect the complete picture, "it is nonetheless clear that noncompliance with noise abatement procedures is pervasive and the norm."

Association officials also said they found that many pilots were still following a full power, straight-line departure and climb -- imposed by the government as a temporary security measure after 9/11 to get flights underway more quickly. That requirement was lifted in April 2002.

Wolf, who has written to FAA chief Marion C. Blakey on the association's behalf, said he will meet next week with officials from the agency, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and McLean residents.

"I think this is a potentially serious matter," he said. "These things crop up, and at times you have pilots cutting corners. If you live under it, it can be very bad."

FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said yesterday that the agency has not had a chance to review Wolf's letter. "We do everything we can to stay out of noise-sensitive areas," Brown said. "And if there are abatement procedures in place, we work with the pilots to make sure those procedures are being followed." Sometimes, however, weather conditions and the kinds of aircraft involved limit compliance, she said.

The study was started in the fall, when the citizens association, which represents about 26,000 households, contacted Wolf about the increasing noise.

Through Wolf, the association obtained flight data from the airports authority. It was reviewed by a group that included Wieland, another retired Air Force officer and Chris Grootaert, a former World Bank official.

Neal Phillips, the airports' noise abatement manager, said that he is not certain how the association reached its conclusions but that the data he has seen show that flight tracks are not much different now than they were in the late 1990s. Complaints about aircraft noise, he said, can be driven by a variety of circumstances that have little to do with what is happening in the air.

"This issue happens all over the place, from west of Dulles to out in Prince George's County, and it's cyclic," he said. "I've been at this job now for 29 years. These things constantly recur. It comes up when new people move into an area or there's new development."

But the citizens association says decisions by air traffic controllers and pilots are creating the additional noise. An analysis of traffic Oct. 23, for example, showed that more than 80 percent of departing flights veered away from the Potomac before reaching the Chain Bridge, flying over a roughly mile-wide corridor between the river and Georgetown Pike.

The association study found that sound levels at other key locations, such as Chain Bridge, Rosslyn, Cabin John and Chevy Chase, had fallen since September 2001.

Several interviews with residents of Langley Forest in McLean yesterday revealed mixed views on whether noise has gotten worse. Albert Ward, 80, a retired CIA employee who has lived in the neighborhood since 1961, said jet noise is vastly reduced from what it used to be, when old Constellation prop planes "would rattle your windows."

The biggest nuisance now, he said, is actually helicopters. "The frequency of the helicopters makes them more bothersome than the airplanes," he said.

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