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Maryland challenges the FAA over flight paths at National and BWI airports

U.S. Capitol and Reagan National Airport on a sunny summer day in Washington, D.C. (iStock)
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Officials in Maryland this week made good on their threat to challenge the Federal Aviation Administration over airplane noise at Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington International airports.

Attorney General Brian Frosh on Tuesday filed a petition in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit challenging changes to flight paths at National Airport. The petition asks the court to review the changes. In a second action, Frosh filed an administrative petition with the FAA, seeking additional environmental review of changes made to flight paths at BWI as well as revisions to routes and flight procedures being used by jets flying in and out of the airport.

FAA officials are required by law to conduct environmental reviews and noise studies before new routes are implemented. In the case of BWI, the FAA’s reviews determined that there would be little or no impact on communities within the updated flight paths. Maryland officials, however, contend that additional study is needed because the noise impacts on local communities have been far greater than anticipated.

“The FAA must follow required procedures before implementing changes to flight paths that impact thousands of Maryland residents,” Frosh said. “Thousands of Marylanders have had their lives disrupted since the new flight paths were implemented without the appropriate level of environmental review, public input, and transparency.”

Federal appeals court rules in favor of the FAA in Georgetown airplane noise case

Added Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who directed Frosh to take legal action last fall: “Maryland is taking this important action on behalf of our many citizens who continue to suffer from intolerable noise pollution due to the NextGen program’s flight paths. Our administration remains committed to bringing relief and restoring the quality of life for tens of thousands of Marylanders living around our airports.”

An FAA spokeswoman said the agency will review the petitions, but does not comment on pending litigation.

Maryland joins a growing number of communities from Seattle to New Jersey pushing back against changes made to flight paths at local airports. In some cases noise levels have increased; in other cases neighborhoods that had never had problems with jet noise now find themselves inundated. The issue has united a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have formed the Congressional Quiet Skies Coalition. 

But solutions have proved elusive. The change in flight patterns is part of a broader effort by the FAA to modernize the nation’s air traffic system, moving it away from World War II-era radar to satellite-based navigation. The FAA said the shift allows planes to fly more precise routes, saving time and fuel. But it also means noise can be more concentrated in certain corridors.

Maryland’s action also comes as residents in Northwest Washington await word on whether their request for a rehearing by a full panel of the same court will be granted. Residents in neighborhoods including Georgetown and the Palisades said they first noticed an increase in airplane noise in 2013, but it wasn’t until 2015, when planes began flying the new paths regularly, that they challenged the changes.

In March, a three-judge panel of the court ruled in favor of the FAA, saying that the residents had failed to file their complaint in time.

D.C. residents are now seeking a hearing before the full court. In their petition, residents argue that the panel’s decision was based on a misreading of facts and that the decision conflicts with the decision by another three-judge panel that found in favor of residents waging a similar battle in Phoenix. That 2-to-1 decision required the FAA to redraw flight paths that took air traffic from Sky Harbor International Airport over several historic neighborhoods in Phoenix and to hold additional public hearings on the issue.

In their administrative petition, Maryland officials contend that the draft environmental study that was presented to agencies and the public did not show enough detail of the proposed routes that the planes would use. Flights arriving at BWI began flying the new paths in 2014. Departing flights began using the new routes a year later.

“The [environmental assessment] produced maps of the entire Mid-Atlantic region with generalized corridor for flight tracks that were miles wide rather than the [new Area Navigation] tracks that have occurred and FAA intended,” the petition says. “Nor were noise levels identified or mapped.”

They noted that the changes have caused greater community noise concerns than FAA predicted.

Officials acknowledged that the FAA has been working with the state and community for more than a year as part of its community roundtable process, but said after more than a year of meetings, there has been too little progress. The state “recognizes and appreciates the engagement of the FAA,”  but asks that the agency now work with “. . . all deliberate speed and transparency to disclose the noise effects of its actions and make adjustments in the airspace to reduce impacts to areas surrounding BWI.”

Noise complaints about air traffic at BWI increased dramatically when flight paths were redrawn as part of NextGen, which uses satellite navigation to direct aircraft to their destinations.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan wants to sue the FAA over airplane noise

In 2015, the first full year in which the new flight paths were in place, the number of complaints at BWI increased to more than 1,850 from 852 the previous year. In 2016, the number rose to 2,694. However, airport officials said the numbers don’t reflect whether the same people filed multiple complaints.

Richard Hinds, one of the attorneys in the Georgetown case, said Maryland officials may run into the same procedural roadblock that D.C. residents encountered — namely the 60-day window for filing a complaint. But he said there may still be life in the fight.

“The petition to the FAA  which we also filed provides another possible avenue of attack if the FAA continues to sit on its hands, which is what it has been doing for the last several years while D.C. litigation has been pending,” Hinds said.