The Mercatus Center of George Mason University published a report entitled “Airport Noise NIMBYism: An Empirical Investigation” (http://bit.ly/2eNayTd) that comes to the conclusion that a small but vocal minority is affecting aviation noise policy. They come to this conclusion based a perfunctory analysis of noise complaints filed. The report’s methodology and conclusions are unreasonable, illogical and naïve.
The report diminishes the impact of aviation noise on communities by showing that in several cases a few individuals or households accounted for a high percentage of noise complaints. The implicit conclusion is that if people really were affected by aviation noise there would be more unique complainers. This is an unreasonable conclusion. First, this conclusion assumes that noise complaints are a statistically good example of the communities’ opinion of aviation noise. There is no research to support this conclusion. The article by Fidell, Mestre and Sneddon in the Jan-Feb 2012 edition of Noise Control Engineering Journal (title: “A potential role for noise complaints as a predictor of the prevalence of annoyance with aircraft noise”) reaches valid conclusions about noise complaints. Second, it has been my experience that many residents do not believe that noise complaints are an effective tool for expressing their discontent about aviation noise. Because of their belief they do not file noise complaints even though they are severely affected by aviation noise. The issue with filing noise complaints with the airport and/or FAA is that residents in communities do not see any results from filing noise complaints.
Another concern is the report’s emphasis on economic considerations. The report authors continue “[t]here are worrisome signs that this small, frustrated minority of citizens is affecting aviation policy.” They claim that noise abatement has an effect on fuel efficiency, which increases carbon emissions and raises ticket prices. Therefore, the economic considerations should outweigh the concerns of a few “annoying,” but vocal, citizens. This ignores the very real health effects that aviation noise has on people. Summarily dismissing the residents’ concerns as being the result of a “small, frustrated minority” ignores the breadth of the community’s opposition to an increase in aviation noise. The report ignores the FAA’s duty to protect these communities. See “[T]he Congress declares that it is the policy of the United States to promote an environment for all Americans free from noise that jeopardizes their health or welfare.” 42 USC § 4901(b); see also 49 U.S.C. § 40103(b)(2) “Administrator shall prescribe air traffic regulations on the flight of aircraft (including regulations on safe altitudes) for . . . protecting individuals and property on the ground.” The statutes do not state that the FAA should take airline ticket prices into account when deciding whether noise abatement is appropriate.
While the report does not propose any firm policy options, it is worrisome that the effect of aviation noise on communities is should be downplayed because only a few vocal individuals are filing noise complaints. There is enough evidence that the health, as well as the economic, effects of aviation noise have a wide ranging effect on communities. Finally, the report ignores the FAA’s obligations under the law. When the FAA was reauthorized in 2003 and the FAA began its roll-out of NextGen, the Congress directed the FAA to “take into consideration, to the greatest extent practicable, design of airport approach and departure flight paths to reduce exposure of noise and emissions pollution on affected residents.” 49 U.S.C. § 40101 note, Vision 100 – Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act of 2003, Pub.L. No. 108-176, § 709(c)(7). The report is asking the FAA to ignore its statutory duties.