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Lawmakers examine FAA response to aviation noise, say more public outreach is needed

The number of people affected by loud aircraft has declined significantly over the past several decades

A Southwest Airlines jet takes off from BWI Marshall Airport. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Federal Aviation Administration officials told lawmakers Thursday that they have improved efforts to work with communities grappling with airplane noise, creating programs that encourage early feedback on changes to flight patterns and an online portal that allows the public to file noise complaints with the agency.

The number of people affected by loud aircraft has declined significantly in recent decades, even as the nation’s population has increased. Still, some lawmakers said more work is needed to ensure communities are being heard, that complaints are being addressed and that the FAA is exploring noise-reduction strategies. The hearing Thursday was before the aviation subcommittee of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

“We’ve got to be much more serious about using, rather than just waiting, for new technology,” said Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), whose district is home to Boston’s Logan International Airport. “We have answers that are available now.”

Aircraft noise issues have garnered more attention in recent years as the FAA has implemented NextGen, a multibillion-dollar effort to modernize the nation’s air traffic control system.

NextGen is designed to replace the nation’s World War II-era radar system with satellite-based navigation, allowing planes to fly more direct routes and to save fuel, the FAA said. But the program’s rollout has shifted flight patterns in communities from the Washington region to Phoenix, leading to increased noise in some neighborhoods and complaints that the FAA failed to adequately explain the effects of the changes.

In 2018, Maryland challenged the agency over the shift in flight paths at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport.

Thursday’s hearing came as lawmakers and residents in the D.C. area continue efforts to reduce effects of airplane noise around Reagan National Airport and the region’s two other major airports.

On Wednesday, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) sent a letter to the FAA and Secret Service requesting information about a shift in flight patterns at National that has led to a rise in complaints from Northern Virginia neighborhoods. He said because the procedures were put in place before the pandemic, the full impact is becoming apparent as the number of flights has increased.

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“These changes were implemented without an environmental review and substantive community engagement, which are both crucial steps in the normal procedural change review process,” he wrote.

Beyer urged the agencies to halt the changes until more environmental reviews and community input could be taken into consideration, which he said were made at the request of the Secret Service to reduce the number of incursions into an area of restricted airspace that includes the White House, National Mall and Naval Observatory.

Commercial and private aircraft are barred from operating in the area north of National Airport, which is enforced by the FAA and the Secret Service.

The FAA declined to answer specific questions about the changes Thursday, saying it would respond directly to Beyer’s letter. However, according to a posting on the agency’s website regarding the change in procedure, the FAA concluded the actions would not “significantly affect the quality of human environment pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act."

The Secret Service acknowledged receipt of the letter and said it would work “diligently to provide a response” to Beyer.

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Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.) said the nation has made improvements in reducing airplane noise, noting that in 1970, 7 million people reported being exposed to significant levels of aircraft noise — a number that fell to 430,000 by 2018 despite a rise in the number of flights. Technological advances have allowed for quieter aircraft, while state and local governments have worked to reduce the number of people living in areas with significant noise levels.

Despite the successes in noise reduction, airplane noise remains an issue for many — one that lawmakers said should be balanced with the benefits of air travel.

“As we move forward, we have to make sure that we continue to take into consideration the complaints and concerns raised by those that are affected,” Graves said. “But also, we have to take into consideration the benefits of commercial air travel and general aviation that have had a tremendous impact on this country’s growth, convenience, ability to improve quality of life and business, capability to see relatives and other things.”

Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minn.) said efforts to find solutions might never be enough to eliminate noise complaints.

“There are plenty of folks who will never be happy with any amount of effort that industry, the community or the airport itself puts in to mitigate noise and disturbances,” he said.

A report last year by the Government Accountability Office found that the FAA could do more to engage with communities about proposed changes. Heather Krause, the GAO’s director of physical infrastructure, told the panel Thursday that improved communication about noise concerns would benefit communities, airports, airlines and the FAA.

Krause said the FAA also should rethink the metrics it uses to assess the effects of flight noise on communities, saying current measures don’t “provide a clear picture of how changes in flight paths or activity may affect noise levels at a given location.”

Kevin Welsh, executive director of the FAA’s Office of Environment and Energy, said the agency is performing a review of its noise policy.

Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.), who was mayor of Phoenix when the FAA launched new flight procedures in 2014, said the changes were made without proper notice or public outreach to the city. Ultimately, the city sued the FAA over the changes and won — one of the few communities that has prevailed in court.

“Hard lessons were learned from the FAA’s failure to conduct a proper environmental studies and public outreach before implementing the 2014 changes,” Stanton said.

Welsh acknowledged the agency’s previous outreach efforts had fallen short, saying its experience in Phoenix “changed how we do business.”