The region's airports have long had systems in place for tracking noise from airplanes, but collecting similar information for helicopters has been problematic because multiple entities, both civilian and military, operate the aircraft. Residents often don’t know where they should turn with concerns. Even if agencies do track complaints, they don't necessarily share that information with each other.
Under this measure, the U.S. Defense Department would create a central system for receiving, tracking and analyzing complaints. The agency would also serve as leader of the community working group, with input from the Federal Aviation Administration, for acting on the information they collect.
Noah Simon, Beyer’s district director, said the congressman recognizes that aircraft noise can’t be eliminated, but does believe that it can be managed.
“It’s unrealistic that airports will close or helicopters will stop flying, so mitigation is really where we are coming from on this,” he said.
Input from residents will help policymakers make better decisions, Norton said.
“This also will help create a record of where the problems are,” she added.
D.C.-area lawmakers have spent years trying to find solutions to the vexing problem of aircraft noise.
Last year, at the behest of lawmakers in Maryland, the District and Virginia, the U.S. Government Accountability Office launched a study to examine helicopter noise. As part of the study, the agency will collect information on the types of aircraft operating in the region and their noise levels; the frequency of flights; flight paths and the degree of coordination between agencies that operate the helicopters and whether pilot training could be modified to lessen the impact on residents — particularly at night.
Chuck Young, a GAO spokesman, said the agency expects to complete work on this study later this year or in early 2021.
In 2018, at the direction of lawmakers including Beyer, the Defense Department completed a study of military helicopter noise in the Washington area.
The report found that airspace in the National Capital Region is “is one of the busiest and most restrictive in the United States” and noted that at least 21 entities, including the U.S. Park Police, MedStar hospital and private charter services, fly helicopters in and around D.C. In addition to three major airports, the region is home to three military airfields: Joint Base Andrews, Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling’s heliport and Fort Belvoir’s Davison Army Airfield. According to the report, Joint Base Andrews averages 190 mainly helicopter operations a day while Davison averages 115 mainly helicopter operations a day.
The report said the FAA and the Pentagon have initiatives in place to try to reduce the impact on residents.
The FAA’s Noise Complaint Initiative includes a cross-agency team that is responsible for analyzing noise complaints and determining ways to address them. At the Defense Department, a “Fly Friendly” initiative focuses on strategies such as having military aircraft fly at the highest allowable altitudes unless otherwise directed and limiting hours of training done at night.
While some lawmakers felt the report did little to address the scope of the problem, it did offer recommendations similar to those outlined in the congressional measure.
Beyer and Norton said more can be done for residents. When Beyer, whose district includes neighborhoods near the Pentagon, held a town hall on the issue in 2018, more than 200 people attended. While the pandemic and issues of racial justice have taken center stage over the past few months, noise from helicopters and other aircraft still remains a top concern among constituents, lawmakers said.
Norton thinks the data gathered through the GAO study and the reporting system will be critical to any effort going forward.
The amendment said the working group would be responsible for proposing “procedural changes” that would address concerns about helicopter noise but such measures must be “consistent with aviation safety and airspace efficiency” and must enable entities to maintain “aircrew readiness, training, and mission support.” A similar group has been working on airplane noise issues at Dulles and National airports.
“Unless somebody is in charge and we have much more information than we have now, the issue of helicopter and airplane noise will not be resolved.”