Commercial airline pilots going from National Airport to New York City have found a shortcut that trims 10 minutes off flying time, but some Southwest D.C. residents, who have unexpectedly found the jets roaring over their heads, claim the maneuver is intolerably noisy and possibly life-threatening.
"I haven't slept in two weeks. I keep two fans on high and it's still as though the airplanes are in my bedroom," said Claire Collins, an irate Southwest condo owner who attended one of several meetings held by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2D during the last two weeks to organize disgruntled residents. More than noise, however, some residents say they worry about the shortcut, called the Anacostia departure, brings the large jets perilously close to their congested neighborhood.
About five years ago, residents say, airlines agreed to fly a course that followed the Potomac River on northbound flights and to begin making their turns at high altitude over Cabin John, Md. Spokesmen and spokeswomen from two airlines, Eastern and New York Air, acknowledge that within the last several months their pilots regularly began to request -- and receive -- permission to make a sharp right turn immediately after takeoff, which sends the planes across the Anacostia River and over Hains Point, Southwest D.C. and Fort McNair. The maneuver, which saves about 10 minutes and 35 miles, is regularly approved by the Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers, but residents say the turn allows planes to fly at less than the FAA-required 1,000 feet.
"My concern is strictly safety," said Bob Ryan, a transportation consultant who lives in Harbour Square Co-operative. "It's an accident waiting to happen. If you're taking off straight ahead and you get in trouble, you can do several things. On the other hand, if you are revving up with all the power of the plane at your disposal, and making a sharp right turn and pulling up the 1 1/4-mile distance from National to the Harbour Square TV tower -- if anything went wrong with that turn, it would be a disaster. There is no room for error."
FAA officials at National Airport acknowledged the increased use of the route and added that they have received more complaints from the Southwest area in the last two weeks than ever before. But they disagreed that the flight path overburdens Southwesterners with noise, or that the route is unsafe. "They hit the Hains Point area and maybe fly a little bit over Fort McNair," said Ray Frankenberg, an FAA operations officer at National. But he said the planes are flying well above 1,000 feet by the time they reach the area, although they may appear lower, even to a trained eye. "I've been a pilot for 25 years, and I can't tell the distance of a plane from the ground without some (device)," he added.
Charles Spence, an executive with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a private pilots' organization, agreed with the FAA but said, "It is safe as long as everything on the airplane works."
Of Southwest residents' preference for the Potomac route in light of the possibility of a crash, however remote, he said, "It's probably safer if you have something to go into -- water instead of buildings -- but of course, the odds (of a crash) are so remote when you consider the millions of flights going in every day."
William S. Canty, chief operations manager in the air traffic control at National, said, "The procedure has been approved since the jets were first introduced to National in 1966. . . . You will find in metropolitan airports throughout the country that aircraft do take these turns, and the majority do not have the stringent standards that National has."
Despite official assurances, however, residents say worries about the shortcut intensified in late winter with the introduction of New York Air, a new competitor on the well-traveled Washington-New York-Boston circuit. However, said Ryan, "Long before New York Air, Eastern was doing it on a random basis, but they've been doing it more regularly since the price of fuel went up."
A spokeswoman for Eastern Airlines said her company began to use the route regularly after they discovered that their competitor did. "If New York Air would fall into line, we'd be very happy to go back to the old way of flying," said June Farrell, manager of public relations at Eastern. "But this is a deregulated marketplace now; we can't give our competitor an extra edge." As far as Eastern is concerned, the route is safe, Farrell said, because "the FAA has approved this as being safe."
New York Air officials also acknowledged their use of the route, but said they knew of no complaints. "Here at the general office, we have received no calls," said James O'Donnell, senior vice president for marketing. "However, now that we know it is an issue, the next reasonable thing to do is look into it." O'Donnell dismissed the Eastern allegation as "a typical, desperate Eastern response," but said that now that he has been apprised of the problem, his office would arrange a meeting with residents to review their complaints.
The introductory protest meeting, held two weeks ago by ANC 2D officials in the basement of the Westminster United Presbyterian Church at 400 I St. SW, attracted about 50 people, a record turnout, according to ANC Commissioner W. Lloyd Reeves. Most of them came uncertain about what action they could take, but clear about the source of their discontent, which was, even as they spoke, roaring overhead.
"The windows rattle, the alarms go off, you can hear the cement crumbling," said Collins, whose neighbors nodded their agreement. "The Arena State is complaining: I was there the other night, and I couldn't hear well."
Besides the safety question, residents complained about side effects of the noise, including tension in the racially mixed community, loss of sleep, disruption of prayer services and, they claimed, an increase in crime.
First District police officials disputed the connection between noise and crime, but Lawnie Taylor, owner of a Carolsburg Square condominium, described how he had been victimized by it: "I was broken into by having a cement block thrown through my window between 12:30 and 1 o'clock on a weekday. A cement block thrown through a window makes a tremendous noise, and for (none of the neighbors) to hear it must be due to the noise of the overhead aircraft."
Still, police said burglaries in the Southwest have been declining. According to Capt. Melvin Clark, sector commander of the portion of the 1st District that encompasses the Southwest, said his office recorded 29 burglaries in February, 22 in March and 8 in April.
Nevertheless, residents vowed to campaign hard to stop the aircraft from making the turn. They plan to organize a letter-writing campaign to appropriate officials and a town meeting within the month to voice personally their complaints to airline and FAA officials. But they also counseled patience.
According to Frankenberg, the FAA will not insist that the pilots stop requesting the run because of noise. "(Pilots) are sort of like the captains of the ship. If (the pilot) wants to do something and it's not strictly unsafe, they're (air traffic controllers) sort of obligated to let him do it," he said.