Let’s talk airplane noise l Guest View

By Kevin Stolz | Aug 21, 2019

In this installment, we’ll be discussing the aircraft noise from Paine Field that’s having a substantial impact on some of us, and what we can do about it.

Because my intent is to include the many issues that have an impact on this topic, my approach is a fact-based analysis in a rapid-fire format (even though it may not seem like that).

Then, as time and space allows, I’ll dig down into contributing factors or additional information in this or a future article.

One of the most common comments I hear from people not impacted by jet noise from Paine Field is, “If you don’t like airplane noise, don’t move next to an airport.”

That’s a pretty ignorant statement, but the reality is that some people don’t know what they don’t know. The following is for the rest of us struggling with questions like, “Why wasn’t there a Plan B?” or “Why doesn’t Paine Field have noise curfews” or “What kind of relief can I reasonably expect?”

First, a bunch of background information that’s relevant.

 

The MRD (Mediated Role Determination)

Back in 1979, the Snohomish County Council adopted the MRD, which stated that Paine Field would remain a general aviation airport, thereby paving the way for residential development around the airport.

As the result of the MRD, the Paine Field Community Council was created to respond to and address the concerns of the stakeholders including the surrounding community as well as aircraft operators and tenants including Boeing. The PFCC meets three times a year and in the past had very good participation, including members from the community, pilots, and airport tenants including Boeing and airport staff such as the airport’s director. In recent years, participation has dwindled including that from Boeing and even the airport director. More criticism of this will follow later.

 

The 1990 ANCA (Airport Noise and Capacity Act)

This is the federal legislation that basically preempts the MRD. Summarizing, the ANCA allows aircraft operators extreme latitude including making it illegal to impose noise curfews thereby giving the aircraft operator 24/7 use of the airport while giving nearby residents almost no remedy.

However, if the airport had noise curfews or other limitations in place to protect surrounding residents when the ANCA became law, those were grandfathered in. Paine Field didn’t.

There is a section that does allow noise curfews to be imposed and approved by the Secretary of Transportation provided the aircraft operators agree. This option has never been pursued, in part because there’s some kind of unspoken pact among elected officials not to do anything that Boeing might not like.

The FAA uses a noise metric called the DNL (Day-Night Average Sound Level).

The DNL represents an average accumulation of noise which may be relatively easy to calculate, it’s technically not very useful in gauging the true noise impact of increased airport noise to the surrounding community. Unfortunately, the environmental assessments used by the FAA in determining the noise impact on the surrounding community relies almost exclusively on the faulty DNL noise metric. The noise events that combine to create the DNL do have an additional 10 dBA penalty applied to the measured noise level between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

 

SOC and the City of Mukilteo

SOC (Save our Communities) and the City of Mukilteo have been working for many years to hold Snohomish County to the terms of the MRD.

In recent years, both have continued to oppose commercial passenger air service by challenging the FAA’s environmental assessment, which incorrectly concludes (using DNL) that 24 (actually 48) flights per day will have no significant impact.

At last check, the City had spent around $700,000 fighting the EA. Unfortunately, there was never a Plan B developed to help mitigate the impact on the affected community if commercial air service became a reality.

 

ATS

ATS (Aviation Technical Services) operates out of Paine Field and performs MRO (Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul) aircraft services. Because often the aircraft are removed from the schedule during down times, are then serviced, and then returned in time to continue scheduled service, flights may arrive and depart in the evening/early morning.

 

Boeing

Boeing operates the 747-400 LCF Dreamlifter (a modified 747 cargo airplane) to transport 787 Dreamliner components.

While I was on the Mukilteo City Council, Boeing was gearing up to build the 787 and planning on flying components in. Due to the fact that other countries had more restrictive noise restrictions/curfews than we had in the U.S. (because of the ANCA), I was told by a Boeing representative that they had no choice but to have to fly into and out of Paine Field during late night/early morning hours to comply with the noise curfews outside of the U.S. This argument is no longer applicable according to that same Boeing representative when pressed after reviewing current schedules.

Not only did Boeing build an additional 787 production line in Charleston, South Carolina, but the community around Paine Field also is now subjected to late night/early morning flights between Paine Field and Charleston in additional to other locations.

The reason now given for the late night/early morning Dreamlifter flights is that Boeing is a 24/7 operation and there’s nothing they can do. The statistics on the hours of the Dreamlifter flights demonstrates that little or no effort is being made by Boeing (and the Dreamlifter operator, Atlas Air) to provide relief to the surrounding communities.

The noise levels of the Dreamlifter is about 10 dBA higher than the Embraer 175 aircraft Alaska (Horizon) and United (Skywest) is currently flying out of Paine Field.

Now just a few words about Noise and the FAA and we’ll (finally) be ready to discuss the current state of affairs and what we can reasonably expect to do about it.

 

Noise 101

The science behind aircraft noise and its impact on us is complex.

So, let’s start with the basics of what is widely known by the experts which helps explains why some locations are significantly impacted by aircraft noise whereas others aren’t.

The biggest noise impact is from departing aircraft in the vicinity of the end of the runway. The next biggest noise impact is from arriving aircraft in the vicinity of the end of the runway.

Low frequency (jet noise) requires mass and much longer distances to attenuate than higher frequency noise.

Because of the geography of many of the homes west of the main runway (34L/16R) in Mukilteo, where the ground acts as a noise barrier, the noise of departing aircraft is significantly less than for those at the departure end of the runway.

The physiological impacts of noise on us when we sleep (even if we’ve become “used” to it) can be significant.

 

FAA Flight operations

Contrary to what some have been told, the FAA doesn’t modify their flight patterns or runway takeoff and landing direction to minimize the noise impact on the surrounding community. If that ever changes, I’ll be sure to update my comments.

The direction of the runway used depends on the wind direction. If the wind is out of the north, runway 34L is used so departing and arriving aircraft are heading into the wind. If the wind is out of the south, runway 16R is used so departing and arriving aircraft are heading into the wind. If the wind is calm and the tower is closed, landing and departing aircraft may be going either direction on runway 16R/34L (which is the same physical runway).

The FAA tower is currently open between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. Yes, commercial flights are departing and arriving when the tower is closed and sometimes departing and arriving in conflicting directions with other users including the Dreamlifter and other aircraft.

 

Recent events

Over the past few years, late night/early morning Dreamlifter flights have increased with a good percentage of them coming from or going to the second 787 production line in Charleston, South Carolina. Not only should this “sting” us all a little bit considering the tax breaks given to Boeing to keep them here, but Boeing also gives our community an extra jab in the back by waking us up in the middle of the night and reminding us what they’ve done to us.

Initially when I was awakened in the middle of the night by a Dreamlifter, I’d send a screenshot of my Planes Live screen to our Boeing representative (aka “The Gatekeeper”) and CCed the Mukilteo City Council.

Later, I installed an ADS-B receiver that tracks aircraft in the area and feeds into the Flight Aware system (you can check it out at http://96.74.19.97:8080). That gave me access to email notifications for all four Dreamlifters.

For the past couple of years I’ve been forwarding the Dreamlifter flights arriving or departing between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. to the Boeing rep and CCing the Mukilteo City Council, Atlas Air, the FAA noise ombudsman, and more recently have included the Snohomish County Council, County Executive, and our local state representatives.

This eventually led to a meeting with the Boeing representative, airport director and airport staff. When questioned about whether Paine Field had ever considered a voluntary noise curfew (remember the ANCA pretty much restricts being able to enforce any new noise curfews), the airport director brought out the Noise Abatement procedures chart. This has been around since I received my pilots license over 30 years ago so I interpreted that to mean “No.” The Boeing representative restated that they are a 24/7 operation and have to fly all hours to keep their schedules but would check internally to see if anything could be done. He supposedly checked and the answer was “No.”

It’s worth mentioning that at one of the Paine Field Community Council meetings while I was complaining about the late night/early morning Dreamlifter flights, airport staff did acknowledge the Dreamlifter was the source of the overwhelming majority of noise complaints (this was before commercial air service started in March). Airport staff also mentioned they had been working with Boeing and Boeing will be retrofitting the Dreamlifter with “quieter” engines sometime in the future. I appreciate the effort but have to acknowledge I don’t think the technology exists to make engines on an 800,000 pound aircraft quiet enough to not wake people up when departing at 3 a.m. Just sayin’.

But the biggest reason I’ve been obsessed with the Dreamlifter flights the past couple of years (besides the fact that my productivity at work goes down the toilet when I’ve been awakened multiple times in the night by an extremely noisy jet aircraft) is I knew there’s nothing restricting the hours that scheduled commercial air service could operate (thanks to the ANCA). And, nobody was doing anything to discourage that eventuality.

The real bottom line with Boeing and Dreamlifter flights is there’s an obvious reluctance on the part of local officials to hold Boeing accountable for anything and Boeing is definitely not as community focused as they were in the past. Boeing has the expertise to minimize night time flights but chooses to tell us it’s more difficult than it seems. I know how difficult it is but I also know the quality of people at Boeing who can make it happen. It’s obvious to me it’s a management problem and that’s all.

Now that Alaska and United have 48 operations (24 takeoffs/24 landings) each day of their scheduled commercial air service flights, I have to admit it’s worse than I expected. Contrary to what the CEO of Propeller Airports told me about flights starting no sooner than 7 a.m. and ending by 9 p.m., in reality the flights start at 6 a.m. and are usually finished arriving by around midnight.

Based on the Noise 101 above, I clearly don’t have it as bad as some but when taking off to the north, the 6 a.m. flights do wake me up, so I do look forward to the days when the wind is out of the south, albeit my relief is at the expense of the residents near the south end of the runway.

Something else I didn’t anticipate even though I should have is these flights are also on the weekend, so while I can’t legally wake up my neighbors by mowing my lawn before 9 a.m., there’s nothing preventing us from being disturbed by departing or arriving jet aircraft at any time. There’s no sleeping in on weekends if morning departures are to the north. Additionally, now that commercial air service is active, there seems to be more Boeing aircraft doing touch and goes at Paine Field than in the past. I’ll check into that observation more later.

So, with all of this as a preface, if we’re severely impacted by aircraft noise from Paine Field, what can we do about it?

 

(1) Push for a voluntary noise curfew at Paine Field

 

Over the years, I’ve flown into Burbank several times and have noticed while walking out to their parking garage on a blast fence the following, “FLY QUIETLY, VOLUNTARY CURFEW IN EFFECT 10 p.m.-7 a.m., FOR INFO CONTACT AIRPORT OPS ON 122.9”. Based on everything I’ve observed over the past couple of years, I believe a voluntary noise curfew is something we could make happen.

Unfortunately, there has never been a Plan B (voluntary noise curfew) and when we had the real opportunity with the night time Dreamlifter flights, nobody was willing to really work with Boeing to head off the ultimate problem.

The County Council has five members, meaning it takes three votes to make anything happen. Two County Council members have separately told me they’d be willing to look at voluntary noise curfews and I know a third who would be receptive.

So, I’d like to see a cooperative effort to work with the County Council to develop a resolution that can be adopted by the county council to implement a voluntary noise curfew at Paine Field. I’m going to work with County Councilmember Brian Sullivan and others to try to make that happen.

 

 

(2) File noise complaints

 

I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the method and effectiveness of filing noise complaints. I’ve seen staff noise reports at the Paine Field Community Council meetings that seem to reinforce my skepticism. However, former Mukilteo Mayor Emory Cole turned me on to @airnoise.io@ and the button that will automatically file a noise complaint at Paine Field just by pushing a button.

I’m still not sure if it really makes a difference or if it just gets ignored, which I’m sure by now my Dreamlifter emails do (at least those that go to our state representatives, the airport director and the Boeing representative) but there’s a certain amount of satisfaction I get by being able to let the powers that be know how often I’m impacted at the press of a button. As we move toward a voluntary noise curfew at Paine Field, noise complaints will be useful in formulating an accounting mechanism for airport staff.am

So, that’s it for now. Next time we’ll be discussing all things parking at Mukilteo’s waterfront as well as the birth and eventual death of the Park and Ride that almost got built in mid-Mukilteo. Drop me a note at kstoltz@citynetwork.com if you have information to share or ideas for future articles.

 

 

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