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New FAA Flight Plans Making Life Very Loud for Some Americans

Record summer travel isn’t helping the matter.

Low-flying aircraft are tormenting formerly quiet communities around the country. (Photo: Bob Adams/CC BY-SA-2.0)

More Americans are flying than ever; this summer, industry groups are predicting over 230 million people will fly in the U.S., setting a new record.

This is causing trouble, though, for a group of people who find themselves under new flight plans.

The big invisible map above our heads, it seems, have been changing over the past few years.

In response to the increased demand for air travel, the Federal Aviation Administration has undertaken a major modernization effort, known as NextGen. But as NextGen is rolled out to airports around the country, the system might just be spreading air travel misery to those on the ground.

The Next Generation Air Transportation System is an elaborate, multi-year program to modernize America’s air traffic control and navigation systems. According to the FAA’s extremely enthusiastic website, NextGen will get more planes in the air, cut down on fuel costs, reduce carbon emissions, and save passengers time once it’s fully implemented. NextGen encompasses a number of programs, but the current controversy mainly involves the transition from radar-based navigation to GPS systems. In an interview with SIGNAL magazine, NextGen deputy assistant administrator Pamela Whitley explained the benefits of the switch:

Prior to having a GPS network….we relied on radar technology. With radar sweeps, you get an update about every eight to 10 seconds, depending on the specific radar. For those eight or 10 seconds, you don’t know exactly where the airplane is.

To handle the lack of real-time position data, the FAA required aircraft to be spaced farther apart; now that the GPS network is being implemented, planes can be positioned more closely together, creating new flight path opportunities.

Additionally, flights can take more direct routes to their destinations. “Prior to this infrastructure, the aircraft moved over ground equipment. That’s how the aircraft secured its location information. With the GPS infrastructure, you no longer have to do that because you’re not limited by the ground infrastructure,” Whitley said.

So, with NextGen, we’ll be seeing more flights that get us where we’re going more quickly. Exactly what we need, right?

It turns out there may be a serious downside to the improved efficiency. As NextGen is implemented, increased air traffic on new flight paths is creating a corresponding increase in noise pollution — and the people living with it are making noise themselves.

In January 2015, CBS News reported on skyrocketing noise complaints in Phoenix, Arizona — complaints went from 221 in 2013 to more than 3,300 from October 2014 to January 2015 — resulting from the new flight paths. Residents described hours of noise from a barrage of overhead flights, with some resorting to reinforcing their windows with Plexiglass. Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton complained about the lack of public hearings about the NextGen rollout and its impact on noise pollution, and in June 2015 the city filed a lawsuit against the FAA over the new flight paths.

Later that year, new flight paths became the bane of Bay Area residents as well. In November 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that noise complaints from those in the flight path had spiked over 2,500%. The sudden presence of 200 to 250 overhead flights a day has turned the quiet community of Pacifica into a veritable landing strip. According to Mike Moffitt in SF Gate, “Pacifica used to be known for two things: fog and quiet. It’s still known for fog.”

Spurred by the skyrocketing noise complaints in communities affected by the NextGen changes — not just Phoenix and Northern California, but Washington, DC, Chicago, and Brooklyn, among others — both FAA officials and Congressional legislators are beginning to take action. According to the LA Times, California Congresswoman Jackie Speier has co-sponsored the Quiet Communities Act, which would “re-establish the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Noise Abatement and Control and task it with reviewing the effects of airplane noise.” Unsurprisingly, the bill’s list of sponsors maps precisely to a list of areas currently affected by NextGen.

The FAA has also begun making efforts to consult with affected communities. “We are very concerned about doing everything we can do to be as responsible as we can about noise,” FAA administrator Michael P. Huerta told the Washington Post. This includes re-assessing how the FAA conducts noise studies and working with communities like Pacifica to identify feasible adjustments to the flight paths to lessen their impact.

For now, the NextGen implementation continues, although the FAA has increased its efforts to work with communities impacted by the project. But with some predicting that demand for air travel will double in the next 20 years, we may all have to learn to live with a constant rumbling overhead.