Residents near BWI angry about increased jet traffic and noise, want FAA to act

Homeowners want solutions to loud planes
Posted at 5:33 PM, May 24, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-24 23:38:29-04

The peaceful sounds of spring mean something different now.  For many people who live in Howard and Anne Arundel Counties, enjoying the weather comes hand in hand with a constant, deafening rumble from jets.

"Some days it's all day long," said Barbara Deckert.

What used to be a rarity is now a daily hell for folks like Deckert.

"It's like being in a thunderstorm, it's unexpected, it's loud, it's distracting, you stop what you're doing and you listen, it can wake you up at night," she said.

Deckert and others have been fighting the roaring engines above for about two years.

That's when the Federal Aviation Administration rolled out NextGen at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.  It's a nationwide, air traffic modernization program designed to cut down on airport delays while saving fuel and money.

One of the biggest changes is a move to Performance Based Navigation.  Aircraft now use satellites and equipment onboard to follow more precise flight paths.  The downside is hundreds of planes regularly and rapidly thunder over the same homes.

People who live below the new superhighway of jets say travelers may be benefitting, but homeowners are paying the cost.  The relentless noise is destroying their quality of life, driving down their property values, and interrupting their sleep.

The low-flying flights can run long past dark, and pick back up before sunrise.  Sometimes clocking just minutes apart.  ABC2 News counted nine airplanes one night over a span of just 15 minutes.

"We need to have our rights as citizens protected from noise pollution,” said Deckert.  “It's a health problem, it's a money problem, and it's not helping anyone despite what the FAA tells us."

According to the agency, before implementing the changes, environmental impact studies were done that included noise analysis.  Yet noise complaints to BWI have significantly increased since the routes were altered.  There were 283 calls in 2013, and spiked to 2,694 last year.

The Maryland Aviation Administration has pointed out to the FAA the new, tighter routes are not compliant with the airport's noise compatibility program or the state's noise abatement plan.

Local lawmakers say complaints have been flying in from people who just want some relief.

“They see a frequency of flights, they see the flights flying lower, later, starting earlier, and really just wanted a strong advocate to make sure that they have a voice," Howard County Councilman Calvin Ball said.

Elected officials from the region have met with the FAA, written numerous letters, and urged the agency to take immediate steps to help residents.

Earlier this year, the Howard County Council voted to pursue legal action against the FAA.

"Frankly I’ve been a little disappointed, I’ve been disappointed by the slow responses, the lack of response, and the lack of action," said Ball.

At the FAA's request, a community roundtable was formed back in March as a way to mitigate the issues.

A frustrated and angry crowd gave the agency an earful.

"All this saving fuel and time it's a boondoggle," Doug Brown from Crownsville said.

"I'm counting 180 airplanes every day, seven days a week right now," said Jimmy Pleasant from Ellicott City.

"Now my house shakes, and I do have little cracks in the ceiling, and I have drywall popping," Millersville resident T.J. Weaver said.

"Paying $12,000 a year in property taxes and who’s going to protect the interest of my home and all of my neighbors," said Kimberly Gus from Arnold.

Members of the Roundtable have been working to recommend adjustments and tweaks to the air traffic routes for the FAA to consider.

Some say they feel like David facing Goliath.

In April, the group passed a resolution requesting the FAA immediately revert to flight paths and procedures that were in place prior to the implementation of NextGen.

"We had a system that people could live with, and they were living in peace, they were enjoying their homes,” Roundtable Chair Lance Brasher said.  “They were benefiting from the quiet enjoyment of their homes."

The pushback from enraged residents now has state leaders getting involved.  Nine Maryland Delegates from the area penned a stern letter, calling on the FAA to go back to how things were before NextGen.  And about two weeks ago, Governor Larry Hogan wrote to the agency demanding the FAA make changes, and calling it's inaction to address the unbearable noise pollution "completely unacceptable."

Federal officials wouldn't sit down for an on-camera with ABC2 News for this report, but said at a meeting reversing to pre-NextGen routes is impossible because the technology changed.

"We cannot go back to what was before, we're going to have to find a way to work as partners to go forward," said Robert Owens, FAA Terminal Assistant District Manager.

The agency called the narrow bands of flight traffic both a blessing and a curse caused by the upgrades.  In letters to Senator Chris Van Hollen and the Roundtable, the FAA repeated they can't go back to the old patterns.

The folks tormented by the noise question if it’s really hopeless to revert to the old flight procedures, and doubt the changes are benefiting the airlines.

70% of the flights in and out of BWI are operated by Southwest Airlines.  ABC2 News reached out to see if the company is actually saving any money under the new system.

In a statement, a spokesperson says:

"Based on our analysis we are not convinced these Metroplex procedures at BWI would provide much benefit, and it seems that is holding true. We are taking a fresh look at the data to better understand fuel savings to date."

A Post-Implementation Analysis report from February shows there has been a fuel consumption savings for all arriving aircraft at the airport.

"There was never a noise problem from BWI until you implemented Performance Based Navigation,” Roundtable Member Jesse Chancellor said.  “That's what we're all saying, that dispersion, however you create that, those are the attributes that we're seeking."

The FAA can make revisions to the air traffic patterns, and wants to explore some minor, short term fixes.  However, trying to mimic the old flight paths with the new technology, or other major changes will take time.

"These generally take somewhere between 12 and 24 months, we're gonna try our best to do it within about a 12 to 18 month period,” FAA Mission Support Services Vice President, Lynn Ray said.  “Moving it as far, close to the left as we can, as early as we can for that formal process of changing the procedure where it's flyable by the computer and the airplane."

Small steps in the right direction, but for people shouldering the burden, they're skeptical.

"It's making me wonder whether or not I can stay in my home of 33 years,” said Deckert.  “I was hoping to stay here for the rest of my life, I don't know if I’ll be able to because of this."

If you want to get involved, the next DC Metroplex Community Rountable meeting is set for Tuesday, June 20 at 7 p.m. at the MAA offices in Linthicum.

The FAA has been hit with lawsuits across the country over the new flight patterns and increased noise.  Some cities have been successful getting the air traffic to follow routes similar to what existed before NextGen.