FAA to conduct first air noise impact study in over 25 years

By Tom Momberg

The Federal Aviation Administration recently announced it will conduct a new survey of airplane noise in neighborhoods around the country’s largest airports to determine whether new standards are needed.

But Queens community organizations that were established to mitigate community concerns over airplane noise around LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy and airports said the study is a waste of time and money.

Though it is a decades-old issue, increased airplane traffic and the establishment of new flight patterns at New York airports have produced an increasing number of concerns from borough residents, despite technological advances that have made newer air crafts quieter.

The FAA plans to survey about 12,000 residents in neighborhoods around 20 unidentified airports by phone and by mail, not by measuring noise.

The survey questions will be based on recommendations from the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise, according to the FAA, which plans to conclude the survey and come up with new recommendations for noise monitoring by 2016.

Queens Quiet Skies President Janet McEneaney said the question is not a matter of whether or not and where people can or cannot tolerate current levels of noise; it is a question of how to actually measure the levels of noise pollution from the ground.

She said it is likely that Congress will pressure the FAA to change the measurement standard this year regardless, due to an increase in national collaboration between communities advocating to lower the standard maximum noise threshold, in which case the study would be unnecessary. Aircraft noise is currently measured using Day-Night Average Sound Level or DNL, which stemmed from a similar social survey of transportation noise conducted in the 1970s. The DNL measurement system averages noise levels across 365 days a year, weighting nighttime levels heavier than daytime.

“That was the result of a consortium of agencies and scientists to measure the compatibility between airports and zoning standards,” McEneaney said. “The current monitoring practices don’t address how we actually experience airplane noise. It was intended to do something very different.”

The FAA established in 1981 a DNL of 65 decibels as the level at which federal funding would be available for noise mitigation strategies. It has gone unchanged ever since, though most countries that use DNL have a maximum standard of 55 decibels.

“This research will provide data for the development of a new dose-response curve (a graphic representation of the relationship between an exposure and an impact, in this case Percent Highly Annoyed and DNL),” a New York FAA spokesman said. “Once we create the new curve, we will determine whether a threshold other than 65 should be used.”

But Queens advocacy groups have said DNL is outdated and doesn’t take into account highs and lows in various neighborhoods, like the nearly 90-decibel levels often recorded in Bayside by the LaGuardia Airport Remote Monitoring System.

Eastern Queens Alliance Environmental Specialist Tamara Mitchell said DNL as the FAA’s and Port Authority’s main assessment tool represents an institutional detachment between local and federal perspectives.

“It is now almost of quarter of century since the issue has been federally addressed and community residents are advocating for the review of noise standards, an assessment of the health implications of exposure to aircraft noise, as well as greater transparency and communications between airport authorities, the FAA and their impacted communities,” Mitchell said.

Reach reporter Tom Momberg by e-mail at tmomberg@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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