Montgomery Officials Say Airplane Noise Working Group Is Stacked Against Local Neighborhoods

Bethesda-area communities said to have little input before flight path changes were made that have resulted in noise complaints

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A working group convened by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take public input about flight path changes that have resulted in noise complaints north of Reagan National Airport was stacked against Montgomery County neighborhoods, according to county officials.

County Council members discussed the issue during a transportation committee meeting Wednesday afternoon that the FAA did not attend.

Instead, David Mould, vice president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, was left fielding questions about the issue, while also attempting to assuage concerns from local officials who have been trying to deal with a developing issue with few proposed solutions.

The airplane noise complaints began in earnest in December, according to local residents. That’s when the FAA began instituting a new concentrated flight path, called NextGen, for departures from Reagan that sent planes over Bethesda area communities such as Cabin John, Bannockburn, Brookmont, Glen Echo and Potomac.

Mould said the FAA asked the airports authority for help taking public input after it began receiving a significant amount of complaints about airplane noise last summer. In response, a citizens working group was established with community representatives from six wards in Washington, D.C., as well as from Alexandria and Arlington and Fairfax counties. One representative from Montgomery County was added later, Mould said.

Ken Hartman, regional director of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Regional Services Center, is that representative. He said Wednesday that since he joined the group, he has found it difficult to get support for different flight plans that would lessen the impact on Montgomery County neighborhoods.

“The composition of the working group has disadvantaged our community,” Joan Kleinman, the district director for U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen, said Wednesday. She said the county’s proposals sometimes aren’t even brought up for votes among group members.

Mould said Montgomery County neighborhood representatives weren’t added to the working group at first because few complaints were being registered from the community. However, since December officials including Van Hollen and County Council member Roger Berliner have said they’ve received dozens of complaints from residents about airplane noise. In response, Van Hollen and County Executive Ike Leggett sent a letter in July to the FAA asking the agency to make immediate changes to the airplane routes.

Hartman said the county wants the FAA to create a policy requiring planes departing from Reagan to remain over the Potomac River for as long as possible and achieve a higher altitude before turning onto land to help reduce the airplane noise. He’s also requesting the FAA not move forward with a new proposal that would move a waypoint that planes fly at from Northern Virginia to near Montgomery County neighborhoods that he said may exacerbate the noise situation.

Mould admitted the concentrated flight path over Montgomery County has “hammered” those neighborhoods. However, he said only the FAA has power to change flight paths.

Berliner, who represents the Bethesda area on the council, encouraged Mould to press for consensus around a plan that could spread the flow of air traffic throughout the region rather than keep it concentrated over the Bethesda area.

FAA officials said during a community meeting last month in Bethesda that the flight path change was part of the national NextGen effort designed to streamline “highways” in the air using advanced GPS technology to reduce fuel usage and increase the efficiency of airway traffic.

Before NextGen, airplanes departing from Reagan used a broader pathway that lessened the impact on one particular airway—a system Berliner asked that the FAA consider returning to.

“It is unacceptable that property values, quality of life and people’s health have been impacted so dramatically with so little forethought,” Berliner said.

Hartman said the working group has little technical expertise to recommend a formal change to the FAA and encouraged county officials to help fund a noise study to fully understand the issue. He notes that the number of passengers served by Reagan has risen significantly in recent years—from 18.8 million in 2013 to 23 million in 2015.

Mould said FAA officials have been providing technical expertise to the working group to evaluate whether proposals put forth by the group would be feasible. However, the FAA officials plan to exit the group at the end of the year, so there’s a limited amount of time for the agency to examine proposals.

“We understand there’s a noise problem, which is why the working group exists,” Mould said. “The goal is to have the least impact on the fewest people, but it’s a difficult thing to do.”

Council member Tom Hucker asked Mould if the airport authority had a long-term interest in county residents using the airport.

“We’d actually prefer they use Dulles,” Mould said.

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