In Delaware, no relief from plane noise|
For months now, the Federal Aviation Administration has been examining airspace over the northeastern United States as part of a plan to alter flight patterns and ease congestion. The airspace redesign, an enormous undertaking involving hundreds of thousands of flights at five big airports in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York, is intended to reduce delays at airports like Philadelphia International, the country's fourth-most-delayed airport. It also could raise or lower noise levels for millions of people, including several thousand residents of Brandywine Hundred, where jet engines can be an aggravation. "I'm just trying to sort of block it out because I don't think it's good for my soul," Nate Cloud, a 65-year-old engineer, says about the noise. His Indian Field Road home lies beneath an approach path for one east-west runway to Philadelphia International. The average flight delay for passengers at Philadelphia was 43.81 minutes in 2004. And by 2011, traffic at the airport is expected to have increased about 9 percent -- to 1,640 flights a day. The FAA says delays are only going to get worse if flight paths aren't reconfigured -- noise over Brandywine Hundred is only part of that equation. Airplane noise -- which increases over northern Delaware when crummy weather and easterly winds force airplanes to line up over Brandywine Hundred to land -- rattles nerves and disrupts conversations. Rumbling jets sometimes play supporting roles in Shakespeare productions at the outdoor Field Theater in Arden, forcing actors to shout lines to audiences. "It's awful," said Cecilia Vore, who is producing "Hamlet" there in June. The FAA has proposed four ways to tinker with airflows to and from the Philadelphia airport, as well as Newark Liberty International, Teterboro (N.J.) Airport, John F. Kennedy International, LaGuardia and 16 regional airports. None of the four options will significantly reduce decibel levels over Brandywine Hundred. But a Delaware task force is pushing one redesign alternative that would shift some flights positioned over Delaware to air space over Pennsylvania instead, and potentially reduce noise, even if slightly, over northern New Castle County. The FAA must weigh efficiency against safety and impacts on residents. "We've got to find a balance," said Steve Kelley, the redesign project's manager in New York. Mo Keane, an environmental specialist for the FAA in New York, put it this way: "The noise never completely goes away. It just gets moved from one place to another. And we try to equitably distribute that noise, but every time you move an airplane, the noise goes with it." Taking comments Public comments on the proposed ways to redesign airspace are being taken until June 1. The FAA has received approximately 400 comments so far, said spokesman Jim Peters. Kelley said some of the most concise comments came from a Delaware group of officials representing county, state and federal politicians. If the FAA adopted most or all of the Delaware group's suggestions, the noise reduction would be modest for Brandywine Hundred, said Chuck Landry, a retired Marine helicopter pilot who sits on the task force. "They're not suddenly going to wake up one day and discover that they can barely hear the aircraft over their heads," Landry said, "but they should be able to notice that ... the noise is not quite as loud and maybe [there are] not quite so many aircraft flying over all the time." The Delaware task force's suggestions are most compatible with one redesign alternative, called Integrated Airspace Alternative with Integrated Control Complex, Kelley and Landry said. The alternative would fundamentally reshape the airspaces controlled by FAA towers from New York to Philadelphia. The proposal would streamline and simplify air-traffic control. The addition of new flight paths would increase safety and reduce delays, the FAA says. Another redesign alternative would modify the airspace but have little effect on arrival flights over Brandywine Hundred. This alternative would make departures more efficient by changing departure patterns. It also could reduce congestion at the Philadelphia airport. Yet another alternative would send many flights away from New Jersey and over the Atlantic Ocean, which would have no effect on the Philadelphia airport or Brandywine Hundred. The option, proposed by the New Jersey governor's office, keeps New Jersey and New York departures over water until they climb where noise isn't a problem. And yet another alternative -- no redesign at all -- has won support on the Pennsylvania side of the border. The Delaware County Council passed a resolution Tuesday opposing all proposed airspace changes, citing potential noise increases for the county, which is home to two-thirds of the airport. Delaware County Councilman John Whelan of Ridley Township said he understands the airport helps drive the regional economy, but thinks it could sacrifice some efficiency. "Come on, just let [passengers] be delayed 6 or 15 minutes before you're going to start impacting 40,000 homes and 100,000 people, and that's the concern," Whelan said. "The economic benefit -- we don't see it outweighing the concerns of the residents of Delaware County." The Delaware task force -- officially titled the Philadelphia Airport Traffic and Quality of Life Issues Action Group of Delaware -- outlined a series of steps the FAA could enact now or once the agency selects a redesign alternative. The task force called for steps that could redirect more arrival flights over the Delaware River. Among other options, the FAA could: • Alter final approach paths to "feather" or disperse inbound streams over a larger swath of Brandywine Hundred; • Increase altitudes of departing flights; • Reduce the number of late-night and early-morning flights. The task force also called for keeping arriving planes at or above 3,000 feet over Brandywine Hundred -- altitude is a chief complaint among agitated residents. Michael Wagner, the air traffic manager at the FAA control tower in Philadelphia, said planes over Brandywine Hundred generally stay between 3,000 and 4,000 feet, in accordance with FAA regulations. "We don't go below 3,000 feet" because of the New Castle County airport, he said. He noted that a small portion of northeastern Brandywine Hundred was within 11.5 miles of the airport runway -- the distance at which planes are supposed to descend below 3,000 feet while landing. The airport lands medium and large planes on "9R" -- the runway a majority of planes over Brandywine Hundred land on -- when the wind blows from the east, forcing planes to line up over a final approach path that stretches from the runway's foot through an area near Kennett Pike and Kirk Road. Below 3,000 feet The Delaware task force, in an April 21 letter to the FAA, cited data supplied by the airport showing that between Oct. 1, 2004, and Sept. 30, 2005, the number of planes below 3,000 feet over Brandywine Hundred ranged from 9 percent to 23 percent. The letter -- signed by politicians like New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and U.S. Sens. Joe Biden and Tom Carper -- cites air pollution this causes for Delaware. Wagner would not address the airport data, at the behest of FAA spokesman Jim Peters. Kelley, the redesign project manager, said more than 80 percent of the planes over Brandywine Hundred are above 3,000 feet, or at 4,000 feet if possible. He said the minimum altitude over Brandywine Hundred is 2,000 feet -- not 500 or 1,000 feet as some residents claim. "The only time they break (3,000 feet) is if there's a direct conflict with other airplanes," he said. Kelley thinks the cloudy weather under which most planes fly over Delaware might make the planes seem louder. And Keane, the FAA environmental specialist, guessed that some residents might perceive larger planes as being lower than they are. Landry, of the Delaware task force, concedes that planes flying under 3,000 feet may not increase sound significantly. "It's more of a psychological thing," he said. "When people see the aircraft flying low it just aggravates them a lot." One of the task force's suggestions that Landry predicts would help reduce noise over Brandywine Hundred is a procedure called continuous descent approaches. The glide-in technique uses less engine power, reduces noise and saves costs, Landry said, but it's difficult to pull off in a congested airport like Philadelphia's. "These are incremental solutions, not silver bullets," he said. 5 decibel solution How much would all the noise-reduction steps actually mean to residents like Cloud, who say they have trouble holding conversations or enjoying a nice day outside? It may be too soon to tell, given the other projects that could reshape runways -- and airflows -- into Philadelphia in coming years. But Landry's hope is that the suggestions will somehow reduce the noise per flight by least 5 decibels, which he called significant. Under the integrated airspace alternative with ICC, the FAA's computer-calculated noise levels for New Castle County for this year, about 42 decibels, and for 2011 are about the same. This is the option the Delaware task force prefers -- but groups in New Jersey and Pennsylvania won't endorse. The FAA measures noise impacts in what is called average day-night levels, or DNLs. The figures are calculated with computer models that use flight data to project airplane noise levels -- in decibels -- from air traffic volume and engine types of planes. The models multiply the effect of night flights because they cause more annoyances. The FAA also studied the actual noise at a home in Ardencroft over a few days in 2001 and 2002. The study projected a total DNL of 49.4 decibels. The actual measured noise of the aircraft ranged from 50.5 to 86.1 decibels. Those levels were produced by about 10 planes an hour, mostly jets, that passed over Ardencroft during the study. A bathroom exhaust fan generates roughly 54-55 decibels, according to the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a Vermont-based nonprofit anti-noise group. A hair dryer creates about 80-95 decibels. Wagner, the FAA tower chief in Philadelphia, suggested the perception of the noise was simply a matter of geography. In New Jersey, Wagner said, "they're so used to seeing so many airplanes. Brandywine only gets this like one or two days for a few hours at a time" each week. Expanding runways However the airspace redesign turns out, two other big projects involving the Philadelphia airport could drastically affect how much traffic Delaware sees. An expansion of a north-south runway, called Runway 17-35, is to be finished by December 2007. The runway mostly handles smaller commuter planes, and if expanded could handle larger planes, diverting more air traffic from Delaware and to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Wagner said. A larger project to expand, add or possibly reconfigure the airport's runways has been delayed. The FAA plans to release an update later this week about the project's delays. For now, the focus for Delaware officials and the FAA is the airspace redesign. And it's unclear whether the FAA will listen to the public or Delaware's politicians. No member of Delaware's congressional delegation -- U.S. Rep. Mike Castle, Carper or Biden -- would comment for this article. Carper spokeswoman Emily Cunningham referred questions to task force Chairman Bill McGlinchey, a bank vice president. "We have not just given [the FAA] complaints," McGlinchey said. The task force plans to send a report to the Delaware General Assembly by month's end. Kelley, the redesign manager, said the task force's suggestions could potentially reduce noise over Brandywine Hundred, but some of them would require further study. And that likely wouldn't happen until the FAA decides on a redesign alternative, which Peters said would happen by year's end. Cloud, who says the noise has worsened over the past 15 years with increased traffic, doubts the FAA actually cares what citizens think. "They make noises about listening to the community, but in my opinion that's just B.S.," he said. "Their objectives are going to be the efficiency of their operations." Kelley said the FAA sees citizen input in the environmental impact study as critical, though comments will be weighed by their practicality. "We're not here just working for the aviation industry," Kelley said. "We're working for the American people. And, generally, many times the people that have the biggest problem with the noise are the ones that are going to complain when they get delayed at the airport because their flight was two hours late."