By Martin Di Caro, 7/6/2015, WAMU 88.5
Andrea Ramirez does not appreciate her new “alarm clock.”
“Especially the 5 o’clock airplanes, everybody in the house wakes up,” says the mother of two youngsters in Foxhall Village along the Potomac River.
“There is a new American Airlines flight to Chicago leaving Reagan National at 5:05 and by the reservoir had only gained altitude to 1,900 feet. The plane was traveling 250 miles an hour,” recalls Ramirez, a physician with a background in engineering, of a recent flight. “That’s the equivalent of driving a Ferrari past your house at 5 a.m.”
Residents near Reagan National Airport on both sides of the river say airplane noise is becoming intolerable, and they are asking the government for help. This Wednesday homeowners will sit down with Federal Aviation Administration, airport and airline representatives for a community meeting to vent their complaints.
The Rise of Reagan National
Ramirez’s nearby friend in the Palisades neighborhood, Alex Dietrich, an active duty Navy pilot, is not bothered all that much by airplane noise, but does not approve of what has happened over the past two years.
“It is part of living in the city, just like ambulances and traffic noise, but to me it’s an indication of a greater problem. And that is increased operations with a disregard for safety, health, and welfare of the citizens of D.C., Maryland, and Virginia,” says Dietrich, who also has a background in engineering.
What has been a boon for Reagan National has become unbearable for some who live under the flight paths: More flights, and at earlier and later hours, are helping major airlines profit again after years of struggles. After the American/U.S. Airways merger, the airport saw rapid growth as JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin America picked up additional takeoff and landing slots.
Reagan National is surpassing Dulles International Airport in passenger traffic. More than 2 million passengers used the former in April. That’s 200,000 more than passed through Dulles. Annual traffic at Reagan National exceeds 20 million passengers.
Airport neighbors say their initial attempts last year to reach out to officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which runs the airport, and the FAA were not successful.
“So when we do get them in a room together they were dismissive and condescending. They didn’t realize that we had done our homework and that we were technical experts,” Dietrich says.
She, Ramirez, and other members of their community group credit Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s representative in Congress, for persuading officials to take their complaints seriously.
“It is no accident that the airlines are being investigated now for collusion when it comes to fares,” Norton, a Democrat, said in an interview with WAMU 88.5.
Norton said she supports restricting late night and early morning flights. “They are flying as many flights as they can when people are asleep.”
Norton said she is working with Virginia Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner to stop additional slots and further exceptions to the perimeter rule at Reagan National.
Since 1987 Congress has added 52 slots — each slot an authorization for one takeoff or landing — at Reagan National and issued 40 slot exemptions to the perimeter rule, the 1,250-mile limit on the distance of nonstop flights to and from the airport.
“Every single time there is a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Act, a senator — usually no more than one — on the West Coast gets a plane into Reagan, which was meant for shorter flights,” said Norton.
Longer flights are usually handled by bigger aircraft, but MWAA officials contend bigger does not always mean noisier.
Noise restriction ‘routinely violated’
MWAA said it enforces the noise restriction between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
“When a prohibited aircraft does arrive on the field, which on occasion has occurred, we follow up with that airline. Where we can, where it is proven that they did not comply with the nighttime noise restriction, we do fine them,” said Margaret McKeough, MWAA’s chief operating officer, who said the maximum fine is $5,000.
Ramirez said airlines get around the noise restriction despite a D.C. law prohibiting excessive noise.
“Airplanes taking off cannot generate more than 72 decibels of noise after 10 p.m. or before 7 a.m. Though the airplanes have been certified by the FAA that they only generate a mere 71.5 decibels of noise, when you look at the noise monitors and the readings they are generating over 76, 77, 78 decibels,” she said.
MWAA’s McKeough said her agency and the airlines agree with airport neighbors that noise is an issue, but she would not say whether the noise has significantly worsened over the past two years, as the homeowners contend.
“I can’t speak to the noise levels being worse or greater. I think that is a subjective issue depending on where you are around the neighborhood,” said McKeough, who emphasized that Reagan National, also known as DCA, is a federally regulated airport. It is up to the FAA to control the number and distance of flights there.
“The Airports Authority has been opposed to any changes in the slot and perimeter rules at Reagan National,” said McKeough.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown issued a statement after receiving questions from WAMU 88.5.
“We have met with DC residents recently to hear their concerns and are working with the Airports Authority on possible solutions. We are committed to supporting MWAA as it works with the communities affected by DCA operations,” Brown said.
Dietrich and Ramirez said new flight paths created by the FAA’s new NextGen air traffic control system are placing larger planes over their homes instead of over the Potomac River.
“Larger aircraft are less maneuverable and larger engines require higher throttle settings, producing more noise,” Dietrich said.
“Because they are less maneuverable they have to fly a wider path. So they are carving out a path over densely populated areas. It used to be they could maneuver a winding river path but now they are flying a pivot point right over our homes, schools, businesses and national heritage sites.”
In response to concerns about the NextGen system, Brown issued the following explanation.
“As part of NextGen, the FAA has developed satellite-based flight procedures that are much more precise than traditional air traffic procedures. The FAA implemented a satellite-based Runway 1 departure procedure for DCA five years ago with the goal of keeping aircraft directly over the Potomac River as much as possible,” the statement said.
“As originally developed, that route crosses over land south of the Georgetown Reservoir where the river bends. The FAA is trying to develop revised departure and arrival procedures that will make sharper turns to stay over the water, but has to make sure aircraft can safely fly those procedures.”
Meeting this week
This Wednesday residents will sit down with government and airline officials at another community meeting, the latest attempt to reach a compromise.
MWAA’s McKeough disputes the assertion that officials have not been willing to listen to the residents.
“The airlines have been very attentive at these meetings. They have identified a commitment to fly as friendly as they can in and out of here, and I think their commitment is sincere,” McKeough said.
Ramirez said the noise problem has been allowed to reach an intolerable point.
“Overall I have just been very disappointed in our elected officials in Congress who have allowed some of this to happen as well as FAA, which is a federal agency that is supposed to be standing up for the interests of the public but instead are serving the needs of airlines,” she said.