Updated at 11:45 a.m. – Residents in Bethesda’s Tulip Hill neighborhood, Cabin John and Potomac say new flight patterns of planes out of Reagan National Airport have brought a noticeable increase in noise and disruption over the past year and a half.
The Bethesda and Potomac residents, some who have organized an informal group of about 20 asking for changes, say noise from planes flying over their neighborhoods, sometimes low enough they can see landing gear, is so loud it stops outdoor conversations and prevents them from going to sleep.
“I understand the airspace is [Federal Aviation Administration] property, but I think to fly all the planes over one neighborhood really isn’t right,” said Mary Britt, who said she has lived in the Tulip Hill neighborhood for 14 years. “I’m just shocked that my beautiful suburb here has had to take so many planes.”
Britt said she and other neighbors are accustomed to planes headed north out of Reagan flying above the nearby Potomac River, but that last year she began noticing as many as 30 planes per hour flying over the neighborhood.
The new flight paths, implemented in 2015, allow aircraft to fly over parts of Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland as part of a more efficient computerized guiding system known as NextGen. Residents in Northern Virginia and D.C. neighborhoods including Georgetown and Foggy Bottom have also complained of increased noise.
On May 5, Rep. Chris Van Hollen sent a letter to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Michael Huerta chronicling complaints he’s heard from residents and asking why the FAA didn’t advise his office of the flight path changes.
“I understand that these changes, resulting from the implementation of NextGen, were designed to improve the efficiency of flight operations,” Van Hollen wrote. “However, their effect on nearby communities has been dramatic and has created an unacceptable and untenable situation for constituents whose homes lie below the flight path.”
Ken Hartman, director of Montgomery County’s Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, is representing the county at a community roundtable group organized by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which operates Reagan National Airport.
Hartman met with Britt and other community members last week to hear their concerns and the roundtable group is set to meet Thursday afternoon at Reagan to discuss Montgomery County-related plane noise issues.
Hartman said part of the issue is the computerized guiding system sends many more flights over neighborhoods than before.
“Planes that are headed east or south all come up the Potomac, fly over Cabin John, then make a turn over Bethesda, up Goldsboro Road over Bethesda and they’re gaining altitude the entire time,” Hartman said.
He said residents in the Woodrock neighborhood of Potomac just off MacArthur Boulevard have also complained about planes that head up the Potomac River and turn west.
“We’re hearing a lot of anecdotal reports from people saying planes are flying lower than before and we’re trying to get to the bottom of it,” Hartman said. He said the county also didn’t get notification from the FAA of an environmental assessment associated with the flight path changes.
“So Montgomery County government, and it sounds like Van Hollen’s office were left completely out of the picture and now we’re left handling complaints,” Hartman said.
An MWAA or FAA spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment. The MWAA’s website includes a radar tracker of flights in and out of the airport delayed by an hour. It shows how loud the planes are in terms of decibels with trackers placed throughout the region.
Tulip Hill resident Susan Lanham said she noticed the increased plane noise in March 2015 and that “the low altitude is especially bothersome.”
Examples of plane noise over Tulip Hill, via Mary Britt
Van Hollen wrote that residents have complained about planes disrupting their sleep, even when their windows are closed.
“As soon as one plane completes its flyover, another plane approaches,” one resident told Van Hollen. “Often, there is more than one plane over the neighborhood at the same time, flying in different directions at different altitudes.”
“Our life is now as if we are living directly below a runway above our home,” another resident wrote to Van Hollen.
Hartman said the county will push for changing some of the waypoints on the flight paths. Britt, who said the planes will begin flying over Tulip Hill from about 5 a.m. hour until midnight, said she hopes for a similar result.
“Do I have to live in a neighborhood with nonstop planes over my street? I just feel the planes have no respect for our neighborhood,” Britt said.