Residents seek answers on airplane noise

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By Erich Wagner (Image/City of Alexandria)

Alexandria residents working with federal and airline officials said they have come up with some ideas to reduce the amount of noise from planes departing from Reagan National Airport, although some will take at least a year to implement.

City council heard from Alexandria’s resident appointees to the airport’s community noise working group at a meeting last week. The group is made up of representatives of the various jurisdictions surrounding the airport, as well as officials from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Reagan National on behalf of Congress, the Federal Aviation Administration and private airlines.

Steve Thayer, the city’s appointee to the group and president of the Torpedo Factory Condominium Association, said a combination of factors have led to an increase in commercial airplane noise that many residents have experienced in recent years, particularly at night.

“Contrary to what some believe, there has never been a curfew at Reagan National, rather a lack of demand and flights at night made it appear to some that a curfew existed,” Thayer said. “The recent increase in demand for early morning and late night travel has meant more arrivals and departures during the 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. time period, which has increased the nighttime noise.”

Since the 1980s, the FAA has imposed restrictions on the types and models of planes that can take off and land at night, but the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 essentially prohibits the agency from revoking nighttime certification from older aircraft.

Another recent change leading to more air traffic over Old Town — but less in other neighborhoods — was the FAA’s transition from a radar-based safety system to the GPS- and satellite-based NextGen system, Thayer said. The result means planes’ flight paths are a lot more precise and therefore more concentrated.

“Basically, it narrows the flight path, resulting in some experiencing a decrease in noise, and for others an increase,” he said. “Those departing DCA day or night and travelling westbound, they travel directly over the west bank of the Potomac River, and there- fore directly over the Torpedo Factory Condominiums.”

That said, Thayer said a major recent problem is that more pilots have begun deviating from the flight path. Instead of flying to a waypoint south of the Woodrow Wilson Memorial Bridge before making their turn westward, aircraft — especially smaller commercial planes — have been cutting across Old Town and making their turns early.

Although all of these developments have combined to aggravate residents day and night, Thayer said a number of fixes
are in the process of study or implementation. The first is trying to crack down on the number of flights that divert from the mandated flight path.

“The FAA has brought the issue of diverting aircraft prior to reaching the waypoint to the attention of air traffic control,” Thayer said. “They’ve requested that diversions be limited only to those circumstances required by safety.”

And Thayer said the airlines are doing what they can to reduce the amount of noise from takeoffs and landings. American Airlines plans to eliminate their fleet of MD-80s, a plane first introduced in 1980, from service, while Delta Airlines plans to eliminate the use of MD-80s in flights that take off after 3 p.m.

But he said trying to mitigate the concentration of flight paths because of NextGen is a long- term issue.

“The group has recommended that the FAA modify the south-flow departure flight paths for aircraft going westbound from the western shore of the Potomac to the middle of the river by establishing the waypoint further east over the river, and extending the turning point 3.9 miles south of the current turn point,” Thayer said.

“But that implementation process, according to the FAA, will take nine to 12 months and it will be subject to internal review, modeling and simulation, along with public hearings and community input.”

Bill Skrabak, director of environmental quality at the city department of transportation and environmental services, said another factor behind the increase in noise is a shift in the ratio of flights coming out of National compared with Dulles International Airport, which also is operated by MWAA.

“National handles more than Dulles does now,” he said. “There’s a decrease in the flights to and from Dulles and an increase at National. So while the planes have been getting quieter, the number of planes and number of flights has been going up.”

“And part of the reason for increased traffic at National, the gist of it is that for airlines, it’s cheaper to have a slot there,” said Lisa Goldberg, a T&ES staff liaison to the working group. “Because of the bonds involved with the construction at the airports, [Dulles is more expensive for airlines]. But the state has been working to try to get more of the flights [into the D.C. area] to go to Dulles.”

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