Com­plaints soar on noise from Dulles and Na­tional

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY LORI ARATANI

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 Air-

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 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 Wash­port. in­g­ton 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 com­traf­fic plaints 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.”


Com­plaints about noise from Rea­gan Na­tional Air­port flights have jumped more than four­fold, to 36,653 in 2016 from 8,760 in 2015.

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