Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Tuesday directed the state's attorney general to sue the Federal Aviation Administration over increases in airplane noise tied to the agency's efforts to modernize air traffic operations at the region's airports.
In a letter sent to Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D), Hogan (R) said new flight paths in and out of Baltimore Washington International Marshall and Reagan National airports have made "many Maryland families miserable in their own homes with louder and more frequent flights which now rattle windows and doors."
"As elected leaders of this state, we cannot allow this situation to stand," Hogan said.
But whether Frosh will follow through with the directive is not clear. Asked several times whether Frosh intends to file the suit, the office would not give a definitive answer, saying, "It is not out of the realm of possibility."
"The attorney general has been very concerned for some time about the impact of the new flight patterns on many of our citizens," Frosh's office said in a statement. "The office has been in conversations with both the Hogan Administration and the FAA to address the issue."
Hogan's letter is just the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between Maryland officials and the FAA — one that is also being waged by counterparts in the District and Virginia.
"The rising frustration across the capital region is further evidence that FAA needs to do a better job of listening to concerns voiced by local communities, and act promptly on those concerns," U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said.
The revised routes are part the FAA's initiative known as NextGen, a $29 billion effort designed to modernize air traffic by shifting navigation from radar to satellites. The shift allows airplanes to fly more direct routes, saving fuel and speeding takeoffs and landings. But one consequence of the shift is that planes tend to fly more concentrated routes, which can mean more noise for some people on the ground. That has been the case in Maryland since late 2014, when airlines began using the new flight paths.
In 2015, the first full year in which the new flight paths were in place, the number of complaints increased by more than 1,850 from 852 the previous year. In 2016, the number of complaints was 2,694. However, airport officials said the numbers don't reflect whether the same people have filed multiple complaints.
FAA officials are required by law to conduct environmental and noise studies before the new routes are implemented. In the case of the Washington region, FAA officials said studies determined that there would be little or no impact on communities within the updated flight paths.
Last year, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) sent letters to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta demanding that the FAA reconsider the flight paths. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), co-chair of the House's Quiet Skies Caucus, also has been outspoken on the issue and has pushed to include a review of noise standards and their impact on communities as part of legislation to fund the FAA. And just last week, FAA staff were at the office of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) to discuss the matter.
Van Hollen, who successfully added two amendments to a transportation spending bill, including one to change the development of flight paths to reduce noise effects in communities near National and BWI, said he would welcome a lawsuit.
Patience, however, is wearing thin.
This year Hogan, in a letter to Huerta, said the FAA's refusal to return to the previous flight patterns while residents' concerns were studied was "completely unacceptable."
When Huerta failed to respond to his May 11 letter, Hogan on Aug. 1 wrote to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
Two days later, Huerta sent a response to Hogan saying that the FAA has given the matter "high priority" but that it would take about 18 months of study. Huerta assured Hogan that the FAA is looking at possible interim solutions.
Airport noise is a perennial issue for policymakers, but in communities where updated NextGen flight routes have been implemented, noise complaints have risen.
Residents from New York to California have challenged the FAA, with some turning to the courts. In the District, a coalition including Georgetown University and homeowners in the Palisades neighborhood filed a lawsuit against the FAA and Huerta in 2015. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's (D) office did not respond to questions about whether officials there are considering a similar action.
Hogan's request and other efforts to roll back implementation of the new routes may have received a boost from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which last month struck down routes that the FAA had implemented at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport in 2014. The City of Phoenix and a coalition of neighborhood groups filed suit in 2015 challenging the changes.
In its decision, the panel wrote that the FAA did not properly analyze the effect the routes would have on the community. The panel noted that the FAA's leaders acknowledged in a meeting with the Phoenix City Council that, "I think it's clear that . . . [our pre-implementation procedures were] probably not enough because we didn't anticipate this being as significant an impact as it has been, so I'm certainly not here to tell you that we've done everything right and everything we should have done."
That may not be the end of the issue. FAA officials can ask for a rehearing. A spokeswoman for the department said the FAA is "carefully reviewing the decision."