Complaints about noise from flights at the Washington region’s three major airports more than doubled last year, according to statistics compiled by the agencies that manage the facilities.
Residents filed more than 96,000 noise complaints linked to flights at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall, Reagan National and Dulles International airports in 2017 — more than double the number filed the previous year.
The dramatic increase comes as the state of Maryland pursues legal action against the Federal Aviation Administration over changes to flight paths at BWI and National.
The FAA’s implementation of new flight paths was part of the agency’s NextGen program, which includes shifting the air transportation system from radar to satellite-based navigation. The change allows jets to fly more-direct routes, saving fuel and improving efficiency. But in some cases, the new flight paths affect neighborhoods that had not previously been exposed to noise of jet traffic.
Roughly 4,000 aircraft operate throughout Washington’s airspace each day. That total includes flights to and from smaller civilian airfields and military bases in the D.C. region.
The most dramatic increase in complaints came at BWI, the region’s busiest airport, where the number of protests filed grew nearly sixfold in 2017. Residents filed more than 15,600 complaints in 2017, compared with just under 2,700 in 2016, according to figures compiled by the Maryland Aviation Administration, which manages the airport. This year is on track for another record, according to preliminary estimates.
During the third quarter of 2018, BWI had 685 daily jet operations.
More than 81,000 noise complaints were filed about flights at Dulles and National in 2017, according to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, and more than 90 percent of those were linked to operations at National. National handles roughly 400 arrivals and 400 departures daily; Dulles operates just under 400 departures and 400 arrivals daily.
MWAA officials attributed the increase in complaints about National and Dulles to several factors including media coverage and more early-morning and late-night flights. But they acknowledge — and residents agree — that a shift in flight patterns is also a contributor.
FAA officials said the agency’s modernization program may have led to more noise because flight paths are now more precise and noise more concentrated in some areas.
“We are working with individual communities to explore possible solutions to their concerns, while remaining committed to ensuring the safety and efficiency of the system,” the agency said in an emailed statement. “The FAA is committed to continuing its collaborative work with airports, airport roundtables and airlines to address a wide range of concerns including aircraft noise.”
The FAA has formed roundtables to find ways to address some of the noise issues in the Washington region, but progress has been slow, participants say. In Maryland, where the roundtable discussions began in March 2017, elected officials have grown increasingly frustrated with a lack of progress.
In June, Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), at the direction of Gov. Larry Hogan (R), filed a petition with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit challenging the flight paths at National. He also petitioned the FAA to reexamine changes made to flight paths at BWI starting in 2014. The state’s case is pending. An FAA spokeswoman said the agency has suspended further discussions with Maryland officials until the legal issues have been resolved.
Whether Maryland will prevail is unclear. Other communities that have fought the changes through the courts have had mixed results.
In 2017, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found in favor of residents in Phoenix, ruling that the FAA must revise flight paths put in place at Sky Harbor International Airport in 2014. (A subsequent compromise involved changes to only a small number of flight paths.) But just a year later, a different three-judge panel of the same court dealt residents in Northwest Washington a serious setback, ruling that the D.C. residents had missed the deadline to file their appeal.
“We got thrown out of court before we even had a hearing,” said Richard Hinds, one of the attorneys involved in the D.C. case.
Hinds said that while residents have given up the court fight, they have not given up the battle over airport noise.
“The complaints are [increasing] because we continue to be very upset about the noise,” he said. “It’s a gentle push to the FAA to do something. We’re playing the long game now.”
In a shift from previous years, the majority of complaints about National — roughly 31,000 — came from residents in Maryland. In previous years, D.C. residents, particularly in Northwest Washington, had been the most vocal about aircraft noise. The largest number of complaints came from people living in the Maryland communities of Accokeek, Bethesda, Potomac and Rockville.
Janelle Wright said word-of-mouth and media coverage may have helped fuel the rise in the number of complaints. Many residents did not recognize until a few years ago that they could complain to the MWAA about aircraft noise, she said.
“Filing complaints is the only way we have to communicate our suffering to MWAA and the FAA,” said Wright, a Potomac resident who is part of the citizen group Montgomery County Quiet Skies Coalition.
Virginia residents filed nearly 27,000 complaints in 2017, followed by D.C. residents with roughly 17,500.
About 20 percent of the approximately 75,800 complaints about noise from National — 15,318 — came from one person who lives in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.
Mike Jeck, who manages the noise office for the MWAA, attributed the uptick in complaints from Maryland to increased media awareness and aggressive community organizing by those who are affected by the issue.
Jeck said the authority has worked to make it easier for residents to file complaints. Earlier this year, the agency unveiled a mobile app for reporting complaints. But some residents say their ability to report is sometimes hampered by technical problems with the app. The MWAA also opened its complaint database to allowed the public to see the information it collects.
According to preliminary statistics from the Maryland Aviation Administration, 2018 appears likely to be another record year for noise complaints involving BWI. More than 54,000 complaints have been filed — triple the number recorded last year. Between July and September, area residents filed 43,004 complaints. Officials said the surge was due in part to technology that makes it easier for people to register noise complaints.