John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif., is closed every night to keep the noise of jetliners from disturbing the neighborhood.
At Long Island MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y., officials are considering creating a "noise budget" to allocate a certain amount of noise to each airline using the airport, and limit its flights to those that total the allotment.
In Minneapolis, the Metropolitan Aircraft Sound Abatement Council met Tuesday to discuss 30 proposals for reducing the impact of aircraft noise from the steadily increasing number of jetliners using Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where a voluntary curfew is in effect 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
"Any time one of those jets goes over, basic human activity ceases," said Walter Rockenstein, head of the Minneapolis group. "If you're talking, that stops. If you're talking to someone on the telephone, you have to ask them to wait a minute. If the TV or radio or record player are on, that ceases. If you're reading a book, that is interrupted."
Rockenstein, a lawyer and former Republican member of the Minneapolis City Council, lives 150 feet from the centerline of one of the main runways. "I work downtown in an air-conditioned building eight or nine hours a day," he said. "But my family is with it all the time. There are literally days when I can come home and can tell that the air traffic has been particularly bad. They're all tense; they've had it."
Aircraft noise is an issue anywhere there is a major airport, not just for those who live along the Potomac River and tolerate the problems at Washington National.
It is also a curious governmental problem: Local, state and federal interests all want some of the responsibility -- and are equally eager to avoid the rest.
Local airport boards, usually creations of local governments responsive to local political problems, want to impose controls that reduce flights or, at the least, night flights. On the other hand, airports want the profits that flow from big airline business, so there is a natural internal tension there.
The airlines, particularly since deregulation, are opposed to anything that keeps them from flying when and where they want to. At the least, they would like some consistency in the local rules they encounter: a curfew in one place, a noise budget in another, present scheduling difficulties.
The quick fix for the airlines would be to have the Federal Aviation Administration become the final arbiter of all proposed local noise-abatement rules. But the FAA is not anxious to step so far into the matter.
That is because it does not want the potentially high costs of paying liability to those aggrieved by aircraft noise. In a suit brought by neighbors of the Burbank airport, California courts have issued a ruling (now under appeal) that its operation is a nuisance and that people can sue for damages every 100 days. If the FAA were to preempt local airport rules, it would become the target of such lawsuits.
Into this divergence of interests comes a new federal document, a proposed policy statement from the FAA "Regarding Airport Access and Capacity." The title doesn't say anything about noise, but there is a long section, entitled "Environmental Impact Management," which does. In fact, for your standard Federal Register entry, it gets to the point quickly.
"The formulation and implementation of airport noise compatibility programs are the responsibility of the airport proprietor, arising from its liability for any damages resulting from the operation of the airport," the proposed policy says. But airports "are encouraged" to consult the FAA before imposing noise rules.
Further, "Airport use restrictions may be considered only when other less restrictive alternatives are clearly shown to be inadequate and less effective ways to achieve the goals of the noise compatibility program."
Jim Smith, one of the last members of the defunct Civil Aeronautics Board, is now at the FAA, in charge of the Aircraft Capacity Program Office. The proposed policy, he said, "serves a strong message that airport operators shall not control airside operations for other than noise reasons." (Airports have "airside" operations and "groundside" operations, with the line of demarcation located somewhere in the jetway.)
But total preemption of local antinoise rules, Smith said, "was considered too strong at this point in time, both from a liability standpoint and a land-use standpoint. It is difficult to preempt without taking liability." Further, Smith said, "There is an element of creeping federalism when the federal government gets involved in local land-use issues."
The FAA has provided some regulatory relief through rules governing airplanes themselves. Intense outcry against jet noise in the early 1970s led to regulations requiring the muffling of older engines. It also pressured manufacturers to develop quieter new ones.
One result has been a series of new planes that are noticeably quieter even to a casual listener, much less a decibel meter. The Boeing 757 and 767 and the McDonnell Douglas MD80 are in that category.
But at the same time, the enormous growth of aviation, combined with new scheduling patterns spawned by deregulation, has exacerbated the noise problem.
These days, all airlines have "hub-and-spoke" systems, by which they bring passengers from many points to a transfer station, then send them to their destinations on another plane. A hub airport such as Chicago's O'Hare or Atlanta's Hartsfield might handle as many as 35 inbound and 35 outbound flights from the same airline in an hour.
At Minneapolis, where Northwest Orient and Republic have major hubs, Rockenstein says total flights have climbed from 285,000 in 1979 to 370,000 last year. In the peak summertime month, average daily operations have increased from 700 to 1,100.
With that has come an increase in tempers from those living along the flight paths. Another antinoise group in Minneapolis, the South Metropolitan Aircraft Action Council, has 1,500 paid members, Rockenstein said, which "makes it a real political movement."
The FAA is planning hearings on its proposed policy.