Subcommittee Hearing Examines Community Concerns Regarding Aviation Noise

This week, the House Transportation’s subcommittee on Aviation held a hearing entitled “Aviation Noise: Measuring Progress in Addressing Community Concerns.”

Witnesses included:

  • Kevin Welsh, Executive Director, Office of Environment and Energy, Federal Aviation Administration, accompanied by:
    • Beth White, Senior Strategist for Public and Industry Engagement, Air Traffic Organization, FAA
    • Mike Hines, Manager, Office of Planning and Programming, Office of Airports, FAA
  • Heather Krause, Director, Physical Infrastructure, Government Accountability Office
  • Sharon Pinkerton, Senior Vice President of Regulatory and Legislative Policy, Airlines for America
  • Frank R. Miller, Executive Director, Hollywood Burbank Airport (on behalf of Airports Council International – North America)
  • David Silver, Vice President for Civil Aviation
  • Emily J. Tranter, Executive Director, National Organization to Insure a Sound Controlled Environment (N.O.I.S.E.)
  • JoeBen Bevirt, Founder and CEO, Joby Aviation

The hearing was divided into two panels: one consisting of representatives from the FAA and GAO, and the other consisting of industry and airport representatives. The two primary themes across both panels were the need for better metrics to capture the impacts of aviation noise more holistically, and community engagement concerns around noise mitigation efforts.

Measuring the Impacts of Aviation Noise

One key theme of Thursday’s hearing was the need for more comprehensive metrics to track the impact of aircraft noise. Several members, including Ranking Member Graves, lauded the sharp reduction in noise pollution over the last 50 years. From 1970 to 2018, the number of Americans exposed to aircraft noise has dropped from 7 million to under 450,000. This reduction has been driven by technological advances, including quieter planes, more efficient flight patterns, and performance-based navigation (PBN). PBN allows for very precise flight paths to make air traffic control more efficient, but also limit noise pollution to a much narrower geographic band.

Much of the concern over noise pollution metrics focused on the accuracy and applicability of the Day-Night Average Sound Level (DNL) metric currently used by the FAA. The DNL measures the average sound generated by aircraft operations over the course of 24-hours. DNL is the primary metric the FAA uses to measure how changes in flight patterns impact noise pollution, particularly as it assesses the impacts of PBN implementation.

Given the cumulative nature of this metric, however, having a small number of loud aircraft flying overhead through the course of a day can have the same DNL as multiple quieter aircraft. Ms. Krause highlighted this takeaway in her opening remarks, and several members pressed the FAA to consider additional metrics to account for the frequency of noise exposure. Chairman DeFazio pressed the FAA to communicate the impacts of PBN more clearly, and also questioned whether PBN can allow for some flexibility in flight paths – for example, alternating patterns or departure/landing times – to prevent one area from bearing the brunt of noise impacts at the same time each day.

FAA witnesses acknowledged the issue, and pointed to ongoing work to develop alternative metrics that can more holistically capture noise impacts, but cited the need to balance flight pattern changes with safety concerns, particularly in areas with complex or heavily restricted airspace. FAA witnesses also noted that its existing community engagement efforts and recurring round table meetings with impacted stakeholders also help provide a more accurate picture of how aircraft noise is impacting communities.

Community Engagement

Another key takeaway from the hearing was the need for robust community engagement around noise impacts. Community engagement concerns were raised not only by members, but also addressed in Ms. Krause’s opening testimony, which highlighted similar takeaways from GAO’s work analyzing aviation noise and FAA’s mitigation efforts.

Several members representing districts near major U.S. airports, including Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Phoenix Sky Harbor, John Wayne Airport in Orange County, and Boston Logan Airport, relayed constituent concerns about the lack of clear communication from the FAA on its implementation of PBN. Rep. Steel of Orange County voiced dissatisfaction at the difficulty for communities around John Wayne airport to reach out to FAA officials, and sought more opportunities for recurring dialogue and meetings between the FAA and impacted communities.

Many of these complaints sought more clarity on how changes to flight patterns would impact communities, as well as more transparency on how the FAA is monitoring and addressing noise impacts. In response to Rep. Williams question about the FAA’s current engagement efforts, FAA’s Beth White highlighted several steps the agency has taken to improve response times and make information more accessible to the public. These include an expanded website and on-demand support chat to help community members easily access key documents and information, new webinars to aimed at educating the public on noise mitigation efforts, and investments in developing clear visualizations and maps that help community members more directly understand how air traffic patterns and other mitigation efforts impact their immediate neighborhoods.

Looking Ahead

While much of the hearing focused on the need to improve community engagement and develop alternative metrics to measure noise impact, there was a largely optimistic mood towards the current trajectory of noise mitigation efforts. Several members cited increased funding made available to airports through the IIJA, and urged officials to invest in greater noise mitigation infrastructure. Mr. Miller, representing Burbank Airport, noted that the IIJA’s funding will be instrumental in helping the airport re-start many noise mitigation programs that had been on pause during the pandemic.

In addition to new funding for noise mitigation, there was substantial optimism about the potential for future innovations in engine design and electric propulsion to further cut down on noise produced by aircraft. Mr. Bevirt’s testimony and responses to member questioned urged greater federal investment in emerging technologies like aircraft electrification, and pressed officials to continue leveraging existing aviation regulations to allow hydrogen and electricity-powered aircraft to operate.

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