Bethesda and Potomac residents came out in force to a community meeting Thursday night in Bethesda to try to determine what can be done to reduce the significant airplane noise they’ve been experiencing since December.
While FAA officials explained to the more than 60 people that streamed in and out of the room why there are more planes passing over their neighborhoods, a resolution to the noise problem was not discussed at the informal meeting at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center.
That didn’t satisfy Irving Lieberman, a resident of Bethesda’s Westhaven neighborhood who attended the meeting and said he was awakened at 5:30 a.m. that day by airplane noise. He said the FAA should not be allowing planes to take off early in the morning or late at night.
“I found out what the problem is,” Lieberman said. “But I didn’t hear solutions.”
Other residents had similar complaints.
“In the last year it’s gotten a lot worse,” Bannockburn resident Anne Hollander said. “I hear really loud airplanes as early as 5:30 a.m. and, when I try to go to sleep at night, as late as midnight.”
“I’ve been noticing more planes, a lot more,” Bannockburn resident Bekki Sims added. “When I moved here 26 years ago, I didn’t even think about the flight plan, now I’ve noticed it.”
A Sumner resident complained about hearing airplane noise “all the time” and another local resident brought a decibel meter with her to the meeting, which she said she uses to measure the aircraft noise.
FAA officials told residents the increase in plane traffic was due to a December flight path change designed to increase the efficiency of flights headed out of Reagan National Airport as well as to avoid exclusionary flight zones around the White House and the Capitol.
The result has been a dramatic increase in the number of flights using automated navigation systems to travel through a tight turn window just south of the I-270 split, over western Bethesda, after flying over the Potomac River. Before the flight path shift, planes would fan out north of Bethesda after flying over the river.
Airplane departure routes before NextGen (left) fanned out more over Bethesda, whereas after NextGen (right) they're taking a narrow flight path
John Belk, a performance-based navigation technical lead at the FAA, said Thursday the change was part of a national plan, called NextGen, that’s designed to handle airlines’ increasing demand for more flights by creating networks of highways in the sky to streamline and automate air traffic.
The FAA is undergoing the federal government’s review of NextGen and is taking public comments about the policy on its website. However, it’s unclear if the December flight plan change will be altered given that an FAA informational document about it says the agency issued a finding that the change had “no significant impact” and that finding was based on a “detailed noise analysis.”
However, Montgomery County took its own noise samples in early August that found jet aircraft noise levels on Broxburn Drive in Bethesda reaching between 56 to 66 decibels on the ground—noise equivalent to a conversation or an air conditioner.
Residents affected by the increased noise have lobbied local officials including Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen. In July, Van Hollen and Leggett sent a joint letter to the FAA detailing their concerns, describing the flight path change as “disastrous.”
“The noise impact from the constant stream of aircraft over these neighborhoods is intolerable,” the elected officials said in a joint statement with County Council member Roger Berliner. “FAA should not be looking at tweaks to a failed system. Instead, they need to employ their expertise to establish procedures that reverse the current detrimental impacts to county residents.”