The Federal Aviation Administration, which is responsible for regulating noise from civil helicopter flights, collects some information but doesn’t share it with operators that receive complaints. Residents on the ground troubled by noise from helicopters often don’t know where to take their complaints. If they complain to the wrong agency, their concerns may never be addressed because that entity might not know where to forward the concern.
The GAO recommended the FAA develop a centralized system to collect complaint information that would be shared with operators.
“By developing a mechanism for FAA and operators to share information, FAA could help improve responses to individual helicopter noise concerns and determine what additional strategies, if any, are needed to further address helicopter noise,” the report said.
In its written response to the GAO’s report, the FAA said it concurred.
“The FAA agrees with the GAO finding that data sharing improvements between the agency, helicopter operators and pilots are necessary and we concur with the GAO recommendation to develop a mechanism to exchange helicopter noise information with helicopter operators in the [National Capital Region],” the agency wrote.
Lawmakers, who have long pushed for solutions, said they were encouraged by the FAA’s willingness to embrace the GAO’s recommendation.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) expressed optimism that the additional data would better enable officials to address concerns about helicopter noise in the region.
“This is not going to end noise, but it could help find ways to mitigate it,” Beyer said. “We look forward to continuing this work, especially with the new administration.”
Last year, Beyer, along with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), co-sponsored a measure to direct the Defense Department to create a central system for receiving, tracking and analyzing complaints about noise from military helicopters. It would be modeled on a system used by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to track complaints about noise from airplane flights. The measure was included as part of the recent National Defense Authorization Act.
The 61-page GAO report details the number and type of helicopter flights that operate in the D.C. area, a region it defines as being within 30 miles of Reagan National Airport.
According to FAA data, between 2017 and 2019, roughly 88,000 helicopter flights were operated by 50 entities in the region. The bulk of those were tied to the military, but they also included flights by medical operations, state and local law enforcement, and federal agencies. But the GAO found there was no way to determine how many complaints those flights generated.
“Limited noise data on helicopter flights in the D.C. area are available because most stakeholders do not collect it, partly because studies to measure and map noise from helicopters over a certain area are technically challenging and resource-intensive,” the report said. “FAA officials told us the agency has not collected noise data from helicopter flights in the D.C. area and said FAA does not know whether helicopter noise in the D.C. area has changed.”
While some residents are adamant the number of flights have increased — and with that, the amount of noise — the GAO found that operations decreased slightly over the three-year period it reviewed. The report also found a disconnect: While operators generally said noise from flights had decreased or stayed the same, those in local communities said noise had increased.
Officials from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, interviewed as part of the study, said it is possible helicopter noise has remained constant but that complaints have increased. That’s because population growth throughout the region may mean more people are being exposed to the noise. The report cited one example: U.S. Park Police officials told GAO investigators that new housing developments have been built near their heliport in Southeast Washington, which could result in more complaints
But without concrete data on complaints, it’s difficult to know.
The GAO found that while most of those 88,000 flights occurred during the daytime, roughly 23 percent, or 19,900, take place during evening hours. Officials interviewed by the GAO said some of those flights are necessary for training or law enforcement purposes. For example, in Prince George’s County, police said about 90 percent of their helicopter flights, which may include law enforcement support or surveillance flights, take place during evening hours.
Noise from both airplanes and helicopters is an issue in communities across the country, but the D.C. region is unique in that it is home to a significant number of military and federal agencies. According to the report, there are three major airports, 11 regional airports and 55 heliports, not including ones operated by the military.
The report noted that despite the lack of data, helicopter operators and the FAA have made efforts to reduce the impact of helicopter noise.
People can report complaints to the FAA’s noise ombudsman, but the process can be cumbersome and time-consuming since the information has to be manually recorded into the agency’s internal noise portal, then forwarded to one of nine regional FAA offices for review by a regional administrator. That regional administrator must coordinate with the relevant FAA offices to develop a response. FAA officials told the GAO it can take one to two months for individuals to receive a response.
The FAA, however, said it has launched new efforts aimed at improving the process.
The report said that last September, the FAA launched an online “noise portal” that asks for detailed information about the complaint, including the street address and time the incident occurred. The agency also said that beginning this year it will publish information on its website about the number, type and “general geographic origins of noise complaints and inquiries received by the agency.”
The additional information will be critical to managing the problem, officials say.
“We think it will only help,” said Noah Simon, Beyer’s district director. “It’s not the panacea everyone is hoping for, but it will be helpful. The more information everyone had, the more we can look at mitigating the problem.”
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) agreed.
“Helicopter noise has been a persistent and disruptive problem in the National Capital Region,” he said. “I am glad that the FAA has concurred with GAO’s recommendation to establish such a mechanism and I urge the FAA to ensure that doing so accomplishes the underlying objective, which is mitigation of unnecessary helicopter noise.”