Residents from across the Washington region filed a record number of complaints about noise from flights at Reagan National and Dulles International airports in 2016 — more than four times the number recorded in the previous year, according to new data released this month.
And those tens of thousands of complaints are coming from a broader geographic area than ever before — a trend residents and some elected officials say is driven by changes the Federal Aviation Administration made to flight paths at the region's three major airports.
In all, airport officials logged 42,683 complaints about flights at National and Dulles in 2016, compared with just under 10,000 in 2015. As in previous years, most of the complaints were about flights at National. Noise reports for National jumped more than fourfold, to 36,653 in 2016 from 8,760 in 2015. Dulles also saw a significant increase, with slightly more than 6,000 complaints in 2016 from about 1,200 in 2015.
Noise complaints also are increasing at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.
In 2015, when new flight paths were in place, complaints at BWI increased to 1,850 from just over 850 the previous year. In 2016, there were almost 2,700 complaints. As with National and Dulles, one person can be responsible for making multiple complaints.
Officials with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which manages National and Dulles airports, concede new flight patterns are partly to blame for the increase in complaints, but they say increased resident awareness, greater media attention and more early morning and late-night flights at National also have contributed to the rise.
They also note that more than half of the complaints filed came from just three individuals. One resident of Northwest Washington's affluent Foxhall neighborhood filed 17,273 complaints about noise at National — an average of 47 a day. That far surpasses the 6,500 complaints filed by one person in 2015.
A second person in the same neighborhood filed more than 1,800 complaints.
A resident of Poolesville, Md., in western Montgomery County, who filed nearly 3,800 complaints, accounted for about 63 percent of the total complaints for Dulles.
But residents who say takeoffs and landings at National are giving them headaches and disturbing their sleep say focusing on the outsize number of complaints from three people shows the MWAA is trivializing their concerns and not committed to addressing them.
The noise problem, they say, is serious and widespread.
"They would like to marginalize the community complaints, that's what that is," said Janelle Wright, who lives in Potomac, Md. "Frankly, it's a little offensive. It really shows that they're not taking the complaints seriously."
Complaints about airplane noise are as old as airports themselves. But in recent years, grumbling has intensified as the FAA has worked to modernize the air traffic system. The goal of the program — the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen — is to replace radar navigation with a satellite-based GPS network. FAA officials say the change would allow planes to travel crowded skies safely at much closer distances. Pilots also would be able to fly more direct routes, they add.
But in some cases, the shift replaced old flight patterns with new ones. As a result, residents in areas where airport noise had not been a problem now say they are being rattled by the sound of flights. In the D.C. region, about 4,000 aircraft operate in Washington airspace each day.
FAA officials said they are not ignoring residents' complaints, adding that they've held meetings with residents and local officials about the changes made as part of the transition to NextGen as well as shifts that were made to address concerns about noise in McLean and Arlington. Earlier this month, for example, FAA officials met with staff members of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) to discuss the issue.
"The FAA is working with airports and airlines throughout the country to improve the safety and on-time performance of air travel," said Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman. "These actions have noise implications. As a result, the FAA has worked closely with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA) to address community noise complaints in neighborhoods near the three DC-area airports."
But that's of little consolation for residents like Wright.
Wright and her family moved to Potomac in 2014, shortly before the FAA began phasing in the new flight patterns. The family was delighted to find a home where they could hear the sounds of crickets and birds. But starting last summer, the sounds of nature began to be drowned out by jets.
"The arrivals are like a dropping bomb, the departures just a loud roar," said Wright, a member of the Montgomery Quiet Skies Coalition, which formed to fight for changes to the flight paths.
Her neighborhood in Potomac is only one of the areas where complaints rose in 2016, according to the MWAA report. In 2014, the year before the FAA began different paths, there was one complaint. In 2016, the first full year the new routes were in place, the number rose to 43. Complaints also increased in other Montgomery County neighborhoods, including Bethesda and Cabin John. In Prince George's County, there was an uptick in reports from Fort Washington and Accokeek.
On the Virginia side, the report showed an increase in complaints from Springfield, McLean and Great Falls in Fairfax County and in Arlington County and the city of Alexandria. However the most complaints — more than 6,400 — came from residents in the Alexandria section of Fairfax. This is the first year the MWAA put complaints from the Alexandria section of the county in their own category; before, they were included in the count for the city of Alexandria.
"Between Reagan National and Dulles International airports, my constituents in Northern Virginia are greatly impacted by aircraft noise," said Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), who pushed to include a provision mandating a study of the effects of aircraft noise in the region in the FAA reauthorization bill.
Maryland residents won support for their cause from a bipartisan slate of high-profile backers, including the state's two Democratic senators and its Republican governor.
Gov. Larry Hogan (R) upped the stakes last week, directing Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) to sue the FAA. Hogan's directive came after he wrote to FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao demanding action.
In a response to Hogan last month, Huerta wrote that the concerns the governor raised have been given a "high priority" and that the agency has made some changes as a result of community input — directing pilots to climb to higher altitudes before turning, for example. However, he said, it would not be possible to return to the previous flight paths and procedures.
In the District, where residents have formed the Washington, D.C. Fair Skies Coalition, a lawsuit filed in 2015 could be scheduled for oral arguments this fall.
A spokesman for Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) did not return requests for comment. But other elected officials have heard the complaints and are working with the FAA and Virginia residents to find a solution.
Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) voiced support for the FAA's efforts to modernize the air traffic system but said the agency must also work with communities as they make the changes.
"No one wants to move backward, and I for one have been saying for years that we need to act quicker in implementing NextGen modernization," Warner said in a statement. "However, the FAA cannot operate in a vacuum. They need to start listening to impacted communities before they make these route changes, and I have urged the FAA and the Airports Authority to work on some modest changes that would take into account these noise concerns."