Several weeks ago, on Friday, July 18, the Federal Aviation Administration briefed state and local elected officials about ongoing efforts to control airplane noise.  The meeting was arranged by Senator Markey, who, together with Congresswoman Clark, has been very diligent in responding to the concerns raised by residents of Belmont and Watertown. The FAA, as a federal agency, is primarily responsive to federal officials.

The meeting was well attended and the presentation was useful.  I spent a long time talking with the FAA managers after the meeting and more recently visited Logan for a tour of the air traffic control tower — a visit that was very educational.

Marginal improvements may be possible — and the federal authorities will continue to explore them —  but I am not optimistic that we will achieve major improvements.
Logan Tower View
Here is a link to the presentation the FAA gave at the meeting and here are some of my takeaways from the presentation and the tower visit.

  • Job one for the FAA is safety.  Our visit to the tower brought this home in a new way for me.  From the tower, one gets a new appreciation of how close those huge jets come to each other.  We watched planes touching down where, only seconds before, other planes were waiting for takeoff and planes crossing runways where only seconds before other planes had been arriving or departing at well over 100mph.  It’s a very small crew in the tower managing that process.  Even on the relatively calm day we visited, the intensity in the room was high as the crew made quick decision after quick decision with little room for error.
  • The air traffic control system has vastly improved over the last few decades.  The new system (RNAV) that routes flights over Belmont and Watertown is part of a much bigger change in the way that planes are managed in the air.   In the old days, planes took off and were passed from regional traffic controller to regional traffic controller without a complete calculation of how the destination airport would be able to handle their arrival.  Experienced flyers may remember the days when one might spend a long time circling in a holding pattern waiting to land.  Those days are essentially over as the national system manages traffic flow along defined air highways.   If a given destination airport is overloaded, planes won’t even push back from the gate to go there.  The traffic control system does the math to make sure that when planes take off, they’ll be able to fly  straight to their destination and land without delay.  The safety gains from the new system are huge as air traffic controllers have fewer planes to worry about in their airspace.  The system also has huge benefits for fuel efficiency, which the airlines are very concerned about given their thin margins and the rising costs of fuel.
  • Last year, the FAA completed the implementation of the new system at Logan, extending it to Runway 33L.  Runway 33L (heading 330 degrees, north/northwest) is used when northwest winds dictate takeoff and landing towards the northwest.  Until last year, 33L was using old “vectoring” procedures whereby planes were authorized to take off in a general direction and permitted then to branch off as expedient, leading to a wide range of flight patterns.  When the new RNAV (area navigation) SID (“standard instrument departure”) path for 33L was created, it channeled the planes along safe defined pathways and those pathways happen to bring more planes over Belmont and Watertown.
  • The new 33L SID was designed after very exhaustive analysis — extending over several years and involving the consideration of many alternative scenarios — with the goal of minimizing overall noise impact in the Greater Boston area.  Overall, more people experience decreases in noise from the change than experience increases in noise, and none experience noise increases to the above 65 DNL level.  (See page 20 of the presentation and note that the increase into the under 45 DNL category is a decrease in noise.)
  • For what it is worth, overall airplane noise has been steadily decreasing in the Greater Boston Area.  The total number of people living in high noise areas (above the 65 DNL level) has declined from 44,000 to 5,000 from 1990 to 2012.  See my previous post for the point that 65 DNL is just much more noise than we have in Belmont or Watertown.
    • The total number of flights per year at Logan has gone down by roughly 30% over the last 15 years, even as passenger volumes have risen, because airlines have changed their booking technology so that most flights run close to full.
    • The more modern planes are becoming quieter and quieter as they become fuel efficient.  The FAA pushes the manufacturers for improvements in noise performance and the cost of fuel has risen dramatically, giving the airlines huge incentives to modernize their fleet.
    • The FAA and Massport are under a mandate to reduce noise overall and have worked very hard to reroute flights overwater and lower density areas.  The technical analysis and public process have both been extensive over the past decade.
  • Noise levels, have, in fact, ticked upwards recently in Belmont and Watertown as a result of the new system, but they remain well below noise levels in other areas.   Our political leverage is  limited given that the communities who are closer than we are to the airport do experience much greater noise.  The plane noise may stand out more in generally quieter neighborhoods, but that is not, in itself, a politically viable argument for special attention.
  • Despite the fact that our problems are smaller than those in other communities, MassPort, the FAA and our Congressional Delegation have been very respectful of our concerns and, through the Citizen Advisory Committee process, the FAA and MassPort are exploring runway use options to minimize uninterrupted use of any one runway — communities have argued that people shouldn’t have to wake up to the same noise they go to sleep to.   Also, some have suggested that planes vary their flight paths off 33L to spread the noise a little more. I’m not sure either of these ideas is feasible or likely to be very helpful, but we will run them to ground.

So, in summary, I think the FAA has worked very hard to limit the overall noise impact from the airport and has made huge area-wide improvements in noise levels.  Those improvements have not helped Belmont or Watertown, in fact, the contrary.  Our congressional delegation remains very attentive to our concerns. But I don’t expect the FAA or our delegation to be able to make things dramatically better any time soon — a lot has gone into the decisions that lead us to where we are. Your state and local elected officials will nonetheless run all options to ground.

Here are some links to additional resources:

Addendum regarding variation of flight paths, September 5, 2014

I have continued to study and inquire about the possibility of varying flight paths to prevent those immediately under the currently recommended routes from seeing so many planes over their homes. The suggestion has been made that the planes would be less offensive if, without abandoning the basic RNAV framework, the planes could just alternate .5 miles to one side and then .5 miles to the other side. Here are some considerations which make this suggestion unlikely to be implemented:

  1. The whole idea of the new navigation system is to keep things consistent and repeatable. Varying routes creates more opportunities for error. Pilots have to load their planned routes in the pre-flight procedure and the fewer mistakes they have the opportunity to make the better.
  2. The airspace over Western Boston is very complex with takeoff and landing occurring at both Logan and Hanscom as well as considerable through traffic. Adding variations around the basic routes effectively expands the widths of those routes. The current routes have been exhaustively vetted to reliably achieve the necessary lateral separation of aircraft. Adding a mile to the width of those routes would unacceptably reduce room for error and would require readjusting neighboring routes — this readjustment might or might not be possible and would, in any event, require restarting a technical vetting process which took years to complete.
  3. Routes have to be fliable. The more turns you add to a route, the greater the probability that planes will fail to actually flight the routes.
  4. Finally, the noise data and noise physics both indicate that this modest variation in routes would make a very minor difference in noise levels on the ground — barely detectable to the ear.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

34 replies on “The FAA and Airplane Noise”

  1. Thanks Will for drilling down here. Not everyone will be satisfied with the official response, but most constituents should understand that air traffic control isn’t mainly concerned with people who happen to live underneath flight paths.

    To appreciate that, I suggest reading a commercial pilot’s description of the dance of death he and his colleagues perform every time they take off and land. The variables they cope with include terrain, the geometry of runways and taxiways, traffic density at various times of day, weather and seasonal conditions, and noise abatement rules – hundreds of rules that differ from country to country and airport to airport.

    Read, view the photos and diagrams, and then see if you still say that aircraft noise in your community should trump any other factor.

    Solving aircraft noise problems might take a worldwide recession that eliminates a large number of airline flights and routes. Short of that, the comfort of those traveling and on the ground will might need to suffer to keep airplanes on time and prevent accidents.

    My personal solution is to travel by air as infrequently as possible. You are welcome to join me. Pledge to stay on the ground. As a bonus, your money will stay around too and benefit the local economy.

  2. Thanks so much Will and all who made efforts. In my research on health and wellbeing I find repeatedly evidence of massively increased stress and a decrease in physical health due to loud industrial noise and fumes of all kinds including planes, leaf-blowers, weed-whackers, neighbors who love to use table saws outside, etc. etc. We are bombarded with noise, often, ironically, on the nicest weather days. We need nature, but if we go in our gardens or even on a balcony chances are any benefit will be negated by the neighbor with the table saw in his driveway or the cannon-sized leaf-blower in use by the other neighbor. Add jets overhead for hours and you’ve got a case of full-blown stress and anxiety, babies who wake early, mothers who never sleep, etc. We feel helpless to stop most of it, and helplessness leads to hopelessness which leads often to depression. Airplane noise if chronic enough slows children’s ability to learn and degrades their hearing even more than it does adults’ hearing. Government on all levels needs to pay even more attention, and frankly we all may be asking too much of air travel–trains, buses, etc. could lessen the load. Quieter, cleaner engines than even the new ones need to get here ASAP so I hope places like MIT make them a priority in their research. I’m happy to help with more on wellbeing and on noise research if you need it. (In my Watertown neighborhood houses are close together and the noise is often unbearable, and that’s even when the jets aren’t flying overhead. When they are it’s all the more hellish. Not only is it painful to be outside, it’s painful to be inside with the windows open. So we must shut ourselves in our hones with them closed–very sad). Please use my comments wherever you like if they can help. Thanks–Susan Cooke

  3. The people who want to penalize Massport for excessive noise forget one important fact: Massport isn’t flying the airplanes. It is possible that controllers are sometimes giving instructions that result in planes being lower than they should be; however, it’s also possible that some pilots are not climbing at the expected (maximum safe) rate. In theory this is something individual controllers can see, because the plane’s altitude is reported every time radar hits it; however, this is an added load that controllers should not be expected to take on. In the longer term, the FAA should be able to extract data on elevations from the computers that convert the raw radar/transponder data into the images that the controllers see; this could even be presented as a safety issue, because a plane that doesn’t climb as rapidly as it should has fewer options if it loses an engine. However, I don’t expect this will happen soon; from what I’ve read, the current generation of air-traffic software was a nightmare, massively late and buggy, so adding a new feature isn’t likely.

  4. Hi Will,

    A few questions on this. First, I’ve noticed a clumping of airplanes coming in between about midnight and 12:15 am on a few days in the last couple of weeks. Doesn’t Logan have curfews on flight arrivals?

    Second, Massport tends to focus only on DNL metrics, which are average values. Normally, peak emissions are also quite relevant, so I’m wondering why they don’t track and report peak data as well — including a separate peak measure for flight times between 10 pm and 7 am.

    Finally, if Massport violates its own rules on a periodic basis, are there financial penalties that get paid to the affected communities? Organizations tend to pay more care to their own rules if there are tangible consequences for violations.


    1. Hi Doug, see the comment above about night flights. That is not a rules violation, except if the plane is of an older type.

      You are correct that the DNL is an average, but MassPort has been very forthcoming in sharing the underlying data. Even the second-interval maximums in Belmont are generally well below the 24-7-365 DNL averages that have been deemed problematic on a national level. Please see this link for a very full analysis of data from a Belmont noise monitoring station.

  5. Will,
    Thanks so much for this write up and for your all of your efforts in making the issues clear and understandable!

    I understand that one trade off of living so close to the city and having Logan so accessible to us is airplane noise. And I understand that airline traffic is safer and that with every passing year we see the benefits of more thought and consideration for the traveler, the airlines and in response to resident comments.

    I didn’t see anything in your notes or even in the comments of others relative to the noise coming from these planes at and after midnight. My latest account was 12:45a one morning and the plane was so close to the house I literally thought it could clip the roof. Is there any relief to the noise brought about by these late night/early morning flights at least? Sometimes these flights are so close it makes the entire house shake like an earthquake has hit.

    Best wishes,

  6. Wonder why we live in Belmont and pay residential taxes up the wazoo thanks to thoughtful residents who want to re-build a mega summer pool at residents’ expense, get their cake and eat it too! Instead of calling it a town of homes, might as well call it Belmont by Logan. When we moved here many many years ago, we did not expect to suddenly be so close to Logan via noise level. I’m sure other residents agree. But there is no sense to the world we live in, not anymore.

    I recognize your efforts Senator Brownsberger and appreciate all that you do. Thank you for fighting this fight on our behalf.

  7. Hi Will. As you know,we live in North Cambridge and we are guessing that we get it before Belmont and Watertown. The planes are frequent and exceptionally loud and low flying. In fact they fly so low that some people in our neighborhood read the bottom insignias of the planes and identify which countries they are from. It was never this way before and up until a couple of years ago it didn’t occur on such a regular steady basis. Why are they all of sudden flying lower and lower and why are they so frequent. What has changed?

    In addition, our son has complained about the loud noise and we will consult with our pediatrician to see whether we should monitor the noise level and perhaps issue a complaint to the Boston Commissioner of Public Health. Exactly what has changed?

    Joe % Lisa

    1. Joe/Lisa, it’s the shift to RNAV — a system in which planes fly consistent routes based on GPS systems. If you are under those routes, you may find the noise louder since last year when the shift occurred. But overall, the number of planes has gone down and the individual planes have gotten quieter. In the area as a whole, the shift to more consistent routes reduces the number of people exposed to high noise levels. This whole thread is devoted to the RNAV shift.

  8. Senator,

    I too have noticed more noise, specifically early Sunday mornings. At 6 a.m., the planes start and they come in waves, seemingly every 10-15 minutes. It’s noticeable.

    I realize this is unlikely to change. I very much appreciate your update on the issue, however.

  9. Thanks so much, Will. I am forwarding this to the Health Dept. in Watertown which has been drawn into this controversy. You have done an excellent job, as usual, of explaining the situation. Kudos!

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