- Environmental Law
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August 19, 2004
by Stuart Lieberman
Scottsdale Airport in Arizona has angry neighbors who feel the planes using the facility are simply too loud. Right now a federally funded study is under way to figure out how to address this problem. But, after all is said and done, the problem will likely never completely go away.
Maybe it will get better for some neighborhoods, only to become worse for others. Or maybe it will be better for three years, and gradually get worse thereafter.
Face it, we are flying more now than before. And more planes require expanded airports, which equals more noise. With increasing frequency, neighbors are vehemently protesting loud airports everywhere.
People who live in the vicinity of airports have been complaining for decades that their lifestyles are unbearable. Often, they are unable to watch a television show without being interrupted. Frequently, they report that regular conversations with family members are all but impossible.
Many individuals who live near large airports moved there years ago when the airports were much smaller in size and handled smaller planes. Teterboro Airport in New Jersey is one example of an airport which for years only serviced small propeller-driven planes and jets. Now, it is becoming a large scale private jet center affecting the lives of thousands of South Bergen County, New Jersey residents.
There is also increased pressure on government officials to provide added airport capacity. Often, it seems that government officials are willing to sacrifice the sanity and well-being of those who reside in the vicinity of our nation’s airports so that the system as a whole can become bigger and stronger. If you do not live near one of these airports, this might at first seem to be reasonable to you. But how about those poor individuals who bought homes near airports believing that the government would protect them from undue noise and pollution? It is not fair that they should suffer so that the rest of us can prosper. Obviously, it is not fair and as a society we cannot turn a deaf ear on these people.
Increasingly, neighborhood groups representing individuals who reside close to these airports are forming. They are petitioning not only the FAA, but our courts and the local agencies that control and regulate these airports for much needed relief.
The FAA regulates all aircrafts in the air, and no state or federal laws are allowed to impede upon this regulation. This is called federal preemption, and this preemption, while clearly necessary in order to protect airline passengers, also makes it very difficult to regulate noise. Even when local officials want to take some kind of affirmative action, their hands are tied by this preemption.
The FAA has approved certain aircraft noise models which can determine the amount of buffer area which is required around an airport in order to provide neighbors with some level of noise protection. This model requires that certain data be placed into it and then determines areas which might be affected by noise levels deemed by the federal government to be excessive.
Modeling is an effective tool for guarding against future airport noise complaints. However, modeling has limits in instances where airports are already fully developed or, where neighborhoods have already been developed within close proximity to existing airports.
In addition to creating buffer areas, there are also physical controls such as the installation of insulation and other sound reducing devices that can be employed at facilities that are near airports. But there are consequences associated with these kinds of fixes as well. For example, a fix which requires sealing all windows in a public school might reduce the level of noise from airplanes that fly above. But it also might reduce the amount of fresh air introduced into the school and might result in a lower indoor air quality level. In that case, school officials must pick their poison.
As in the case of Scottsdale, the federal government will often enter into agreements with local airport operators to fund studies designed to reduce complaints from neighbors. And these studies are often used to reduce future noise complaints when airport expansions are proposed. Such expansions are being proposed at many airports throughout the country. One of the problems seems to be that there is a disconnect from what the federal government considers to be acceptable noise levels and what people on the ground perceive to be acceptable noise levels. Often, conditions described by the federal government as acceptable are reported by neighbors as simply unacceptable. The most common complaints seem to be that people cannot talk on the phone or watch television or have discussions with their family members inside their homes.
Is it fair that thousands of people who live near an airport should suffer so that a region as a whole can prosper? It is important that airport operations and airport expansions occur in a manner that is compatible with maintaining the sanity of neighboring airport residents.
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