Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, in a last-minute letter to a task force studying anti-noise rules and other restrictions on airport use, said the federal government has no business interfering with local and state rules to control noisy airplanes.
The statement puts Dole at odds with both a recommendation of the government-industry task force and the opinions of J. Lynn Helms, chief of the Federal Aviation Administration, part of Dole's department.
Helms said at a speech in Dallas a year ago that he was drafting federal legislation that would require FAA review and approval of local aviation noise rules.
"The closing of an airport even for one hour has effects on the national air transportation system well beyond the local community," Helms said. His legislation never left the ground.
The task force, created at the direction of Congress, was headed by Civil Aeronautics Board Chairman Dan McKinnon, who handed the final report yesterday to Reps. Norman Y. Mineta (D-Calif.) and Elliott H. Levitas (D-Ga.), chairmen of House Public Works subcommittees.
Dole's March 4 letter reaffirmed a DOT position first expressed by Secretary William T. Coleman Jr. in the 1976 debate that followed the controversy over whether the noisy Concorde supersonic jet transport should be permitted into the United States. Coleman found at that time that "the airport noise problem always has been and remains a local responsibility."
Dole also said that land-use planning around airports should remain a local matter; then she got to what has always been the underlying point in this long-running debate:
"Liability for damages attributable to aircraft noise properly belongs with the airport and aircraft operators," she wrote. "Absent the authority to affect local land-use decisions, the assumption of liability for noise damages would place the federal government in the untenable position of being liable without the concomitant authority."
The task force said technological improvements would inevitably lower noise levels as newer jets come into the fleet. Nonetheless, it said, there is only so much technology can do. It called mandatory land-use planning and reduction of incompatible land uses (meaning residential subdivisions) near airports "essential components of a national strategy to reduce noise impact."