The conundrum of modern life

January 28th, 2014 by Jamie Beckett

In all my years in aviation, I can’t recall ever visiting an airport or an aviation business that hasn’t been the object of noise complaints at some point. Some suffer the indignity of public outrage on a regular basis.

I find this odd.

Bear with me now. There’s a point to this.

I live in a suburban neighborhood less than two miles from the downtown of my small city. There is a train track that runs past my house. It lies roughly 200 yards from my bedroom window. I can truthfully report in all sincerity that a train has never woken me up or intruded on my daily routine. For a guy who often works from an office that’s tucked away in that railroad adjacent house, that’s saying something. On the other hand, with three crossings within a half mile of my house, the train whistle has woken me up literally hundreds if not thousands of times.

That whistle has woken up my wife, my kids, the neighbors, and anyone who might be visiting in the neighborhood, too. So what? As much as I dislike being woken up from a sound sleep, and as much as I wish it didn’t happen–I can’t say I didn’t see it coming.

I had to drive over that railroad track to get to the house when my wife and I were house shopping all those years ago. It didn’t escape our attention that the existence of tracks was a pretty good indicator that trains might travel along those rails now and then. We took the noise in stride, because the irritation factor of the train whistle was offset by the lower cost of the home.

There was a similar home for sale less than half a mile away. It was on a lake that connected to other lakes via a chain of canals. It was beautiful. It was also listed for twice as much as we paid for our current home.

Life is full of trade-offs. It just is. There’s no malice intended. The railroad is not at the heart of an evil plot to wake me and all my neighbors up from a deep sleep. Yet they do. And still we do not build barricades on the tracks; we don’t shine lasers in the engineer’s eyes as he passes. No matter how often we find the annoyance of freight trains a bother, we know our driveways are filled with cars that were transported to this far flung location on a train. The trusses in my roof were built of lumber that arrived here by train. In fact so many products and raw materials arrive in my general area by train that I can’t even begin to envision them all. But that’s no big deal. Those same products and materials arrive in your general vicinity by train, too.

My choice is clear. I could protest the whistle. I might choose to file petitions with the courts. I suppose it’s even possible that I might go so far as to assassinate the character of railroad executives in the press. But to what effect? If I am successful I’ll simply find it harder to get lumber, or a new automobile, or any number of necessary items. If can I find them, they’ll cost me more. And they’ll cost my neighbors more, too.

Would the trains really stop? No, probably not. The economy of population and need would require them to find another route. The train wouldn’t wake me up anymore. But the noise wouldn’t stop. It would just be transported to another part of town, another neighborhood, where it would rankle the residents of a new neighborhood.

Aviation is no different. There is an irritation factor for the neighbors. At least occasionally, we have to admit that’s true. But what of it? The air traffic isn’t descending into the local park and knocking over the ice cream stand. It’s headed for the airport, a confined area that’s designated specifically as the hub of air traffic for a given area. The neighbors knew there was an airport there. Just like my experience with the railroad, the existence of an airport is a reasonably good indicator of the likelihood of arriving or departing air traffic in the near future.

That’s the trade-off. In exchange for a convenient flight to vacation and business spots. In order to have overnight freight shipments available. To provide educational opportunities for the next generation of pilots, mechanics, administrators, and more – there is an airport. And the airport creates noise. Not insufferable, constant, unrelenting noise. No. It brings with it occasional, potentially irritating noise that we all recognize as being associated with airports.

So why do I bring all this up? Simple. I’m suggesting we change our tune, stop making the argument that airports aren’t noisy, or shouldn’t be noisy, or perhaps should adopt radical noise mitigation procedures to reduce noise levels. Rather, we should admit that airports are industrial areas that emit noise. Much like the railroad, or the highway, or shipping warehouse, or a police station, or a fire station, or a garbage truck. Yet no one would expect to be taken seriously if they suggested we should close all those other services down rather than accept the noise they make.

No. We like garbage pick-up, fire protection, crime prevention, independent travel over safe roads, and good paying jobs too much to shut all that down. Modern society just wouldn’t exist without all that–or the airport.

Let’s get off defense and start playing offense. That’s where we’re going to start putting points up on the big board.

Jamie Beckett

Jamie Beckett is a passionate promoter of all things aviation who focuses his attention on the positive more often than not. He is the former president of the Polk Aviation Alliance in central Florida. He is committed to working to build a growing pilot population as well as a greater appreciation for general aviation nationwide.

The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Andrew Elliott

    Does the AOPA have a number of noise meters that can be lent to local ASN volunteers? I am convinced, at least at my home airport of FFZ, that people’s complaints about aircraft noise are based much more on fear than on noise. One guy who complains about little plane noise lives <1/4 mile from a major freeway with lots of heavy truck traffic! Regular use of noise meters could discredit many complaints, I think, and show them for what they really are – simply fear of little airplanes.

    • Bruce Liddel

      For $29, you might get pretty darn close with one of these meters:

    • Bill Worden

      there is an app for smart phones that makes a sound level meter using the built in mike.

    • Greg Faris

      Supplying noise level meters to airport complainers would definitely be counterproductive.
      Measurement of noise levels, and interpretation of the results requires an engineer’s knowledge and full disclosure of the methodology used to produce the measurements. Sound level meters can be made to say just about anything you want, and they are routinely used disingenuously by airport complaint groups. Even when measurements themselves are accurate, people apply incorrect interpretation, such as workplace standards (OSHA) for steady-state noise levels and hearing damage, when what they are really complaining about is not hearing damage or steady-state noise, but nuisance factor of more or less frequent noise intrusions.
      It is extremely important to try to inform and educate people – there are many who do not have a strong opinion one way or the other, and are listening to both sides, so it is important to have the best arguments. But it is not desirable to suggest people take their own measurements or form their own proofs, and in fact it is important to systematically contest and reject any “home-brew” proofs they provide.

  • Mike Friedman

    AMEN Mr. Beckett!

    I live under the pattern of our local airport. Of course, I’m a pilot and the exhaust note and sound of a propeller cutting through the air are music to my ears. I sought after a location near an airport when I bought my home, and it amazes me when I go to town meetings and listen to people complain about the noise. Did they not see the 3/4 mile long stretch of pavement parallel to the road and the hangers when they bought their condo across the street? The airport has been there, virtually unchanged, since before World War 2, and most of the residences nearby were only built in the last 10-20 years. What, exactly, did they expect?

  • Natalie Thoma

    You hit the nail on the head!

    Unfortunately, some well heeled well connected idiot succeded in creating a no fly zone over his home. It only applies to the small airline that operates single engine and light twin aircraft…for now. If the airline fights this, they have been threatened with getting their lease revoked. What’s to stop this guys neighbors from doing the same thing till the entire airport is surrounded by an unjust no fly zone?

    • Greg Faris

      This cannot be correct.
      “No Fly” zones are military injunctions applied in hostile territory, usually enforced by repressive force of the most unpleasant sort. An individual in the US cannot create a “no fly” zone; The airspace is not even governed by the local community, but by the FAA. Perhaps this individual “has something” on the air operator, and is able to present a menace to their operation that they take seriously, though if true he would do better not to make it known publicly, as blackmailing to control federal airspace is probably a felony. I am not discounting your report, as I have known of cases where individuals have been able to present enough of a nuisance level to airports that patterns have been changed to avoid them, but this type of irresponsible behavior should be called out. I am not sure what the most constructive approach to this bullying is, but perhaps if it is simply “generally recognized” and often repeated that one individual uses his influence to wield an unfair advantage over his neighbors, it may help to discredit him, as well as the anti-airport movement.

      • Greg W

        I am not in argument over this however, the term “no fly zone” is used domestically by officials at all levels. Whether correct or not the term is often used and is currently on the TFR maps for the super bowl. The loud minority, often will gain favor in local matters if for no reason but to get them to “go away” the local authorities do not want to deal with the hassle and giving in to them, demands is easiest. These situations are like court cases settled “out of court” it is cheaper for the defendant and makes the problem go away, it also emboldens the accusers, and their attorneys, to repeat the process at the next opportunity..

  • Doyle Frost

    Thank you sir, for a well reasoned response to the many critics of anything aviation. While working around aviation most of my life, and having responsibility for the redevelopment (ground ops supervisor,) of a closed USAF base, with its two mile long runway, I had to deal with people complaining to our head office about the noise of jet and prop aircraft. I could not understand that. When they bought those houses, did they not know there were large jets, (B-47 6 engine bombers, KC-135 4 engine large in flight refueling aircraft, B-52 8 engine bombers, and worst of all, FB-111 twin engined fighter/bombers taking off with full afterburners,) creating a lot more noise than the average community airport? Luckily, the air force left some sound level meters, and we were able to find out the current level was actually less that the noise level created by the commercial trucking company right next to some of those complainers homes. And that was while having the jet engine test cell on the flightline turn up their test engine to max throttle.

  • Brett Stephens

    This is a topic nearly as old as aviation itself. Older, even, if you merely consider it a variation on a theme: Nuisance noise.

    While the “airport was here first” argument is both valid and plausible, it is also combative and disingenuous. In other words, it doesn’t play well with the community. Speaking from experience, it was the first step towards isolating and alienating those whose support you need the most.

    The Venice Municipal Airport (KVNC) was recently profiled in AOPA’s Pilot e-Brief as a turnaround case study. Plagued for decades by deferred maintenance and a population ranging from indifferent to totally hostile towards the airport, it took a major, grass roots PR and good will effort to turn the tides.

    There were actually many different meaningful efforts applied at many different levels aimed at winning back the hearts and minds of the public and they all focused on one very cheap and readily available tool: Facts. Private studies were conducted compiling the payroll of labor on the field. Regional economic studies showed direct and indirect economic impact to the region. Virtue themes, such as commerce, humanitarian relief, tourism and light industry were promoted.

    Voluntary noise abatement programs were also developed, tested and implemented. Airport Open Houses and other inside the fence events were and are staged to show the public what goes on inside their airport. Transparency, access and facts.

    We supported elected officials who supported the airport. Airport friendly leadership hired competent airport management that in turn, took airport maintenance and aviation affairs seriously. Compliance increased. Grant money arrived. Long overdue improvements, including two runway rehabs, were completed. One of them was the calm wind runway that has reduced noise complaints down to just one single person who is now viewed as the last remaining vocal airport critic.

    Perhaps our greatest saving grace was the poison pill attached to our airport: Deed and grant assurances. Being a WWII War Surplus Act gift, KVNC must remain a fully functioning municipal airport in perpetuity. And there were times when we would have loved watching the hammer come down, letting the fed step in and take over our airport. Or better yet, sell it off and build towering condos. Suddenly, a sleepy municipal airport on the Gulf sounded much better.

    @ Natalie Thoma; who is the airport sponsor there? This story, while not surprising, is ripe for a legal challenge. Cities do not control airspace, so it is puzzling to me how they pulled this off. The new norm, of course, is to pass whatever legislation you want and enforce it until it is declared unconstitutional or illegal.

    If deed or grant assurances are attached to your airport, the FAA would certainly be interested to know your airport utility has been marginalized. If it’s a privately owned and operated airport, they have more wiggle room to write the leases as they want. But, a lease is still a contract and the terms of a contract cannot be modified unilaterally or revoked mid term without violating any terms of the lease.

    AOPA has been extremely helpful in community affairs policy and could be a tremendous asset to resolving those issues.

  • Maria Nucci

    Jamie – BRAVO! My aviation career began with a brief sentencing to “noise abatement/community relations.” My analysis of complaints revealed that the great majority came from 3 persons, who would typically call multiple times each day. Sadly, 1 of them called the tower and threatened to come on the airfield and shoot down a plane if the noise did not cease. He was cited under state law for harassment – with result that he was given his own special number to call! My favorites, however, were the neighbor who requested we close the airport on a particular afternoon, as he was hosting an outdoor party, and the one who informed me that he had the right to “quiet enjoyment” of his property. In the many inverse condemnation suits, the big injury typically claimed was that, when those mean, nasty jets flew over, “you can’t talk on the phone or hear the TV.” (Over the years, other goodies have been the ones about how we did not know the airport was so close when we bought our house, and we bought our house 30 years ago and did not think the airport was going to grow.)

    Re my first airport, it seemed to me a key part of the problem was that, in the recently completed Part 150 Study, the consultants were not clear that (1) noise maps show averaging of data, not fixed paths for flights nor impenetrable walls for decibels, and (2) regardless of noise abatement activities, aircraft make noise and that’s that.

    We airport people, commercial and general (I’m both) need to firm up our education efforts – and our resolve; as Andrew and Doyle indicate, facts are a powerful tool. (And, re the anti-FAA comments one sees in various aviation sites and blogs, I’ve worked and networked with many FAA folks over the years and, based on that, state they are serious about the community issues, but on our side as well.)

  • Bill Worden

    You make several excellent points. I wish to emphasize one of them. Human endeavors do not need to be perfectly clean and silent in order to justify their existence. Infrastructure like airports, trains, and traffic need only need only strive to bring their noise levels down as far a practicable. It is a simple accounting: do the benefits for all of us justify the annoying of a few of us in a particular case? The answer is pretty much always affirmative.

  • Mike

    I am a pilot but just don’t understand the reluctance of pilots to adopt better mufflers. I know that there is a horsepower loss but the anger over noise is the major problem. Buy another few horsepower and a better muffler and the problem is solved. and the community will welcome you

    • Chilli

      Think about it – an electric weed wacker sounds really annoying, however an electric engine generates almost no sounds, however the high-speed whip is quite irritating. So it is not really the muffler as much as it is the prop. Until everyone switches to more efficient props, a muffler is almost useless. I’ve heard identical engines with a completely different sound impact simply because they had different props. Definitely the prop is not only louder, but depending on the design, also quite annoying. The old sqaure tips are the loudest of the group because you have the most surface area operating near the speed of sound at high rpm. Switch to either a round tip or better yet, a newer swept-tip and the sound is drastically reduced.

  • George Macedo

    Jamie Beckett, thank you for addressing what I think is the most critical issue for the future of aviation in this country. All I know is airport owners and their constituents better get their act together on defending airports. The trickle-down economic argument of an airport falls on deaf ears if you vote and live in a traffic pattern area, as I do. It is time to stay laser-focused on airport residential neighborhood concerns and offer the proportionate incentives for the costs they bear. I think my GA airport is such a fantastic candidate for closure at so many levels that I don’t dare say them aloud. Any airport homeowner knows if you get rid of the airport, your home value goes up so you can borrow more or move to a nicer home, and you will not have a plane crash and kill everyone you know in your neighborhood. Even the railroad example in this article is subject to this same economic laws of a voter, and trucking is always offered as the safer, quieter solution to both rail and airports in every debate. There are fundamental reasons for communities wanting to eliminate airports that are not worth arguing using the tired macro-economic, patriotic or idiotic reasons I’ve grown weary of. As history teaches, you can only suppress the natives by state/federal mandates to a point, usually at boiling temperature. If you do not directly compensate the native population, at as many levels possible, your airports will be out-voted by a quieter, safer, higher-revenue generating development such as a housing community or shopping mall or something else. Just look at Santa Monica or any other airport divested by a community for your local game plan on what not to do. Would it really hurt or help to offer airport area homeowners an incentive to bear the brunt of safety and direct economic loss of a local airport? Special economic zones are nothing new. How about a $500 travel voucher per year at the local airport for any resident in the traffic pattern area? You could increase vested use of the local commuter airport vs. regional international airport, increase incremental income to the airport in far excess of the voucher, increase local tax revenues and dilute the unfairness doctrine promoted by real estate developers to the local city councils. Bad idea you say? I say it’s time to get creative, or get packing. By the way, I also knew when I bought my home that the local power plant and their high-powered lines were already part of the neighborhood. I also watched my power bills skyrocket as those power lines took “my” electricity to the power grid. One year those lines collapsed and caused a record county fire. There has been a mad jihad to eliminate the powerplants, and we are winning. I bet both San Onofre nuclear power plant, and now the Encina power plant folks wished they gave local citizens discounted energy or something for the visual blight, pollution and catastrophic inevitability of their operations, just like they do in many countries that produce oil. Airports are no different, in my view. You must proportionately compensate and incentivize the local population in the airport traffic area that deal with the daily noise, pollution and inevitable danger of the transportation service THEY provide to the community, and in a way that consistently reminds them of the direct added benefit they get for doing so.

  • Robert D.

    Mike, most of the noise from small aircraft comes from the propeller tips exceeding the speed of sound, not from the muffler. And most planes are designed to use the stock muffler design. Airplane owners don’t have a choice of noise deadening mufflers to use.

  • Roger

    There is no better sound than that produced by two 4,000 HP diesel locomotives in a tunnel.

  • Frank A.

    Yes, one can try to compare airports to other noisy services of our civilization (railroads, fire stations, garbage trucks) as Jamie did in order to justify putting up with their annoying aspects. The problem is that the average person can much more easily appreciate the benefits he/she receives from those other services and thus accept the tradeoff of annoyance vs. benefit for them. He/she is much less willing to accept the annoyance-benefit tradeoff for the local airport, especially a small local airport used mainly for recreation by pilots (such as me), because he/she sees little to no benefit. I’d love to be able to convince the anti-airport folks of an airport’s benefits but I fear all the economic engine, disaster relief, business transportation arguments are just too abstract to sway people’s opinions. Sorry, but if I didn’t fly I think I might have a hard time tolerating the noise of a busy local airport just because of all the “benefits” it provides.

  • John McGinnis

    The absurdity is that a quiet, peaceful field makes no noise whatsoever. It merely bears the blame for what all the noisy airplanes do. Airports do not cause the problem. Noisy, antique, inefficient airplanes that we love so much we pay through the nose for their intensive care… that’s what causes the problem.

    It’s time to fix the problem.

  • JW110

    The problem lies with the inability of Congress to address any tort reform.

    If you removed the “standing” or ability for people who bought homes built after the airport existed, the problem would virtually disappear.

    Again, most of the airports have been there long before the inhabitants who complain of the noise because they live near an airport.

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