Living along the flight corridor of one of the busiest airports in the world is irritating enough to make some people think of leaving home -- for good. Rita O'Connor, her husband Ted Schell, and their two children live on Hawthorne Place NW in the Palisades, where residents frequently complain about airport noise and air pollution.
Rita O'Connor says she and her husband consider the neighborhood one of the best in the District, but because of the "extremely annoying" noise and pollution from Washington National Airport, the family is considering moving elsewhere.
"You notice the noise most on Sunday mornings, summer evenings, and cloudy days," O'connor said. Often she finds it necessary to interrupt telephone conversations when the planes fly overhead, and resume them in a quieter part of her home -- "like the basement."
Just thinking about the daily lives of those grounded along the flight path of National Airport is enough to make Eric Bernthal mad. Bernthal, president of the recently formed Washington Metropolitan Coalition on Airport Problems, calls the planes a "constant overhead intrusion."
The coalition is made up of nearly 125 local and are civic groups concerned about the noise, traffic and pollution problems at National Airport. Virginians for Dulles. Maryland Citizens Concerned About Aircraft Noise (MCCAN) and a D.C. group, Neighbors Opposed to Irritating Sound Emissions (NOISE), are among the member organizations.
"The obvious flaw," says Bernthal of the previous efforts of the individual organizations, "was that there were groups on both sides of the river, and in the District, but we were not organized. Finally, it became apparent that there was no hope of dealing with the problem in a rational way if we didn't bury our differences and work together."
The coalition had its beginnings when members of Virginians for Dulles, the oldest of the groups involved in the 14-year battle over National, invited members of MCCAN to sit down and discuss common goals. When NOISE was formed in the district, it also was asked to take part in the discussions. From there, information about the alliance spread, and the umbrella organization was developed.
Bernthal, a Cabin John, Md., attorney whose own home is in the pattern of National take-offs and landings, says the group is not entirely satisfied with a recent FAA proposal to limit passengers at National and divert some of the jet traffic to Dulles and Baltimore-Washington internation airports. He agrees with the assessment of CAP second vice president Eric Cronquist, a Palisades resident who says the FAA proposals are "token and cosmetic."
Coalition members are unimpressed by part of the plan that calls for a 20 percent reduction in the 640 jetliner flights currently permitted each day at National. Bernthal and Cronquist say this is not enough. They would like to see a 50 percent reduction in the flights.
"Reducing the traffic by four slots per hour is a modest step," Bernthal said. "No one will hear any difference unless he's standing outside counting the jets."
But residents of the affected areas consider any reduction in flight as step in the right direction. Rita O'Connor says fewer jets might mean a reduction of what she sees as a potentially serious pollution problem. "I'm as worried about what I can't see as I am about what I can," O'Connor says of the airpollutuon. She says the lead count in the blood of some of her neighbor's children has been found to be abnormally high, and although they cannot prove it, residents believe pollution caused by the planes may be partially responsible. O'conner added that her own children -- who learned to say the word "airplane" before anything else -- have no such problems, "but why take the risk?"
O'connor says she and her husband used to call National to complain about the noise, but they have given up. "You always get some slick P.R. guy on the phone who either tells you you're mistaken or manages to calm you down, but, of course, can't do anything about it."
O'Connor describes herself as a fairly frequent air traveler, and says she would be willing to make greater use of Dulles International Airport -- if the flights were available.
"I think diverting some of the flights to that airport is a good idea, and I would certainly support an FAA proposal to do that. I don't know how much the most recent plan would help, but at least it's a start."
But a 50 percent reduction, coalition spokesmen say, would force the airlines using National to divert flights to Dulles and Baltimore-Washington.
Bernthal says he considers the suggestion a reasonable one, although he allows that the major airlines are not likely to see it as such.
"I realize that the FAA is caught in the middle here," he says, "and I'm sympathetic. But I'm not sympathetic to the businessman in Chicago who wants the convenience of National, because when I go to his city, he makes me land at O'Hare.
"I agree that National is far more convenient for some people, and I'm not saying shut it down. But the old argument is just not true anymore -- the population center has radically expanded. Everyone who takes a plane out of National isn't leaving from D.C. although the congressmen still feel that they must have their plaything."
In addition to a reduction in the amount of traffic, the coalition seeks:
Retention of short-haul commuter airline slots at National. Coalition members fear that a manditory cut in scheduled flights may have a more serious effect on commuter service than on the major airlines.
Improved public transportation to Dulles International Airport.
A tougher, more restrictive mandatory curfew at National. Although the airport closes at 10 p.m., the coalition alleges that flights scheduled for what they call the "magic minute," between 9:59 and 10 p.m., often do not leave the runway until as late as midnight.
The establishment of an advisory committee of citizens and local officials who would discuss airport-related issues with the FAA.
While saying the number of planes using National is the "critical question," the coalition spokesmen also see potential problems in two other aspects of the proposal. They feel expansion of the 650-mile perimeter, in which nonstop flights between National and other cities are allowed, and the possibility of wide-body jets landing at the airport, would eventually create a need to expand National.
Bernthal and Cronquist admit that while the FAA proposal does not satisfy the coaltion's demands, represents a victory of sorts. They say it is the first time a secretary of transportation has been willing to acknowledge that there are problems with National.
They also say coalitions such as theirs, which they believe may represent as many as 100,000 people, can be very effective once they are able to generate a widespread interest in the issues. Cronquist says the "political interests" (meaning Congress) that have kept National overcrowded represent "only a small, albeit heavily weighted group."
James Wilding, director of Metropolitan Washington Airports, agrees that such groups can have a very strong impact on the policy-making process. He would not comment on the coalition's stance on the FAA proposal, saying he is "quite anxious not to enter into a debate with them" during the 90 days in which the proposal is open to public comment.
The comment period extends through April 15. Persons wishing to express an opinion may do so by writing to the Director, Metropolitan Washington Airports, Hanger 9, Washigton, D.C. 20001. Copies of three documents pertaining the plan, the Notice of Proposed Rule Making, the Notice of Proposed Policy, and the Environmental Impact Statement will be on the reserve shelves of Washington metropolitan libraries at the end of next week. Personal copies of the rule-making and policy notices are available from the FAA Office of Public Affairs, Public Information Center, 800 Independence Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20591. The Environmental Impact Statement may be obtained from the director's office, Metropolitan Washington Airports. There is no charge for these materials, which also may be requested by calling 426-8058.
Wilding added that he is eager to hear coalition members's comments within the proper forum, because, "when you get opinions from a large group like that, you're really dealing with the people. I would certainly say that they are a force to be reckoned with."