Airport safety, noise, and land use planning have always gone hand in hand. The problem is that, in the past, most elected officials and airport sponsors just didn't understand this interaction. And even today, many of these decision makers still don't understand these important issues or their responsibility to the airport and their communities. Many of the problems existing at airports today are the direct result of poor or non-existent airport land use planning decisions made by elected officials.
Although many who complain about the airport cite aircraft noise as disturbing them, the reality of their complaint is often based in fear - the fact that if they can hear an airplane, the craft must be too close to them. If those responsible for administering land use in areas surrounding their airport facility had implemented a long-term approach to responsible land use zoning of areas surrounding the airport, many of the problems experienced by airports and their users simply wouldn't exist in today's world.
Every concern a community expressed about an airport relating to noise and safety could be eliminated with responsible land use planning.
In recent years, opposition to new airport development, expansion of existing airports, and continued operations of airports conveniently located within or close to urban areas has grown remarkably.
Most often, the opposition was based on objections to aircraft noise or fears regarding safety - and quite often, the noise generated the fear. The concern for safety was based on the contention that the airport was, or would be, a threat to the safety of those who lived or worked in the vicinity of the airport's location - airplanes would crash into houses, schools, shopping centers, office buildings, etc. How real has this threat been? What is the evidence of airplanes actually colliding with residences, schools, and working places?
The following information presents the results of a study made to provide some answers based on the accident record experienced by general aviation from 1976 through 1990. The limitations expressed in the preceding sentence should not be overlooked. This study presents the general aviation record. It does not cover similar accidents related to air carrier or military aircraft operations. Therefore, it is not a complete record. However, because general aviation accounts for more than 90% of the pilots, aircraft, and airports and more than 85% of the aircraft operations, it covers a major part of the record.
"General aviation" is a term encompassing all aviation activity except that of the airlines and the military. It includes not only business and recreational flying but a lot of other flying as well. Instruction and training (even for the airlines), air taxi, aerial application for agriculture and forestry, aerial mapping and photography, aerial fire control operations, aircraft testing and demonstration, highway traffic advisory and police flying, power and pipeline patrol, air shows, and similar activities are examples. General aviation flying may be commercial or noncommercial in nature.
Between 1976 and 1990, according to FAA and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) data, there were 333 general aviation Building and Residence (B&R) Accidents, or an average of fewer than 23 a year. Seventy of these accidents resulted in a fatality, either aboard the aircraft or in a building/residence on the ground, while 12 of these resulted in an injury to persons on the ground. On average, only about 10 general aviation B&R accidents a year result in a serious injury and/or death to individuals either in the aircraft or in a building/residence on the ground.
Over the 15-year period studied, only seven general aviation B&R accidents involved fatalities on the ground (see Table 1). On average, less than one general aviation accident a year results in a fatality or serious injury to persons in a building or residence on the ground.
All in all, only nine individuals between 1976 and 1990 were killed when a general aviation aircraft "fell" on the building or residence in which they were located. And between 1985 and 1990, there were absolutely no fatalities or injuries to individuals on the ground as the result of a general aviation B&R accident.
To put things in perspective, during 1985 alone, more than 7,750 pedestrians were killed by motorists on the highways, more than 1,100 people lost their lives in boating accidents, and more than 900 were killed while riding on bicycles. In 1984, 11,600 were killed in falls, 4,800 by fires, and 1,800 by firearms.
During 1985, general aviation, according to the FAA, conducted more than 44.3 million departures, or almost 1.5 takeoffs for every hour flown. Using this methodology, general aviation conducted more than 500 million departures between 1976 and 1985. Considering that only 12 of these estimated 500 million departures resulted in a fatality or serious injury to persons in a building or residence on the ground, this is a pretty impressive safety statistic. To state it positively, 99.999998% of all general aviation departures do not result in a fatality or serious injury to individuals in a building or residence on the ground.
The drone of an airplane overhead may be music to your ears, but for the slumbering non-flier next door, it can be as grating as the gleeful band of trash collectors seeking to finish a day's work between 5 and 6 a.m.
As cities and suburbs have spread, airports and residences have become increasingly wedged together. The fact that "the airport was here first" presents an unconvincing argument to homeowners and apartment dwellers who have established their homes a mile off the departure end of a runway. Maybe they knew the airport was there and felt it would be no problem. Others acquired housing ignorant of the nearby airfield.
Most people can live with airplane noise - particularly the sounds generated at a general aviation airport. Those sounds are less obnoxious than the cacophony of trucks, sirens, construction sites, and motorcycles that one confronts walking down a street.
But for some people the intrusion of airplane sounds into their home, particularly late at night, is a source of irritation that becomes magnified because airplanes are conspicuous, unfamiliar, and perceived by some as unnecessary.
In some cases, too, people may transfer a subconscious fear of an airplane crash in their neighborhood into anxiety over the airplane's noise.
Those who are finding aircraft sounds distasteful have been mounting surprisingly effective fights to get at the source of their frustration. Their efforts are leading to bans on jet flights at some airports, night closings of fields, and legal restrictions on flight training.
The FAA has set standards for machines that fly, and all users of airspace agree that noise standards or limitations should be applied uniformly throughout the country. Most pilots would argue, too, that any noise standards set in a community should be applied equally and fairly to all noise sources - not just airplanes.
This section of the packet provides information about aircraft noise levels and compares aircraft noise to other aircraft noise sources.
Noise is, very simply, unwanted sound or any sound that is undesirable because it interferes with normal speech and hearing or is intense and annoying. The best way to describe noise and the problems relating to each individual's response to noise is to view airport noise as a system of integral parts including, but not limited to, the following:
Each one of these factors plays a major role in the definition of the overall airport noise impact.
There are no less than 25 different methods to define noise; however, the aviation industry uses four basic methodologies to specifically describe aircraft noise:
FAA Advisory Circular 36-3F is a compilation of aircraft noise generation for takeoff and approach configurations of various makes and models of aircraft. All stipulations presented in the text of this advisory circular are applicable to dBA noise levels. The circular also dictates specific placement criteria for the noise sensors used during the aircraft noise data collection process.
The noise levels presented in the circular are associated with the aircraft certification process and are NOT INTENDED TO BE USED BY AIRPORT OPERATORS to make arbitrary assessments of what aircraft are and are not suitable for access to the airport. Individual site-specific studies of airport noise are performed under the authority of Federal Aviation Regulations Part 150 and are most often federally funded.
The accompanying tables depict the decibel levels produced by various propeller-driven and jet aircraft. By comparing the noise levels indicated for particular aircraft to the "noise thermometer," one can clearly see where general aviation aircraft fit into the overall noise picture.
Through a concerted effort, and by demonstrating your sensitivity to the concerns expressed by the community as it relates to airport noise, your relationship with those affected by airport noise can be significantly improved. But we must be willing to VOLUNTARILY take the steps necessary to be thoughtful to our fellow community members. Should voluntary efforts not be considered important to the airport, you may find your airport facing local legislation to fix the problem, and this solution isn't always in the best interest of the airport or its users.
Here are some ideas that might be applied voluntarily to improve the noise impact at your local airport.
Fixed-Base Operators -
And For the Surrounding Community -
The FAA's mission is the development and maintenance of a safe, efficient, and environmentally compatible air transportation system. The aircraft noise issue is a major factor in the success of this mission; therefore, the FAA must respond to industry in three basic areas:
The success of any airport noise program is contingent upon a cooperative working relationship between the airport sponsor, local government, users of the airport, and the adjacent community. Without this vital relationship, the airport noise problem remains just that - a problem. To this end, the FAA has developed guidelines and regulations to foster this cooperative effort while at the same time establishing a systematic policy addressing the issue of controlling noise. A few of the major FAA regulations and advisory circulars include the following documents:
The objectives of each of the above documents are to reduce and prevent noncompatible land uses around airports, establish standardized methods of measuring aircraft noise, and provide specific guidelines to evaluate land use compatibility.
As discussed earlier in this section, almost every complaint imposed against the airport and based on either safety concerns or airport noise can be attributed to poor, inadequate, or non-existent land use planning and zoning of property in close proximity to the airport.
This failure to protect the airport environs has led to the loss of many airports from our national inventory of landing facilities. In the past five years, 135 public-use landing facilities have been lost. And today we continue to hear calls to close airports for the above reasons. In virtually each and every one of these cases, the culprit is zoning laws-or the lack thereof.
Residential encroachment on the airport places the most stress on an airport to close. In many cases, politicians, in an effort to expand the tax base of local government, turn their backs on the airport, opting instead for short-term financial gains. Seldom do these elected officials have any understanding of the airport's economic impact on the community at large.
Additionally, oftentimes property values are lower for residential areas surrounding an operating airport. New residents move into the area, knowing that the airport exists. However, once the subdivision begins to flourish, these same residents organize and begin to pressure elected officials to do something about the noisy airport. Thus, the value of their property will probably go up.
For example, examine the case of Montgomery County Airpark in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a designated reliever airport to Washington National, Dulles, and Baltimore-Washington airports.
No airport is safe from the threat of encroachment unless good zoning decisions and advance planning documents are put in place before a problem arises.
Land use and development plans, based on an in-depth compatibility study, are among the most potent and affordable ways to protect an airport while still allowing development near an airport. Done right, this process could save local taxpayers many dollars by avoiding the purchase of additional property by the airport sponsor.
If the airport is federally obligated, that is, has accepted federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) funds, the airport sponsor is required to sign a contract with the FAA. This contract, also known as "Airport Sponsor Grant Assurance clauses," places certain obligations on the airport sponsor.
One of the most important and compelling obligations placed on the airport sponsor by the FAA is that the sponsor "...take appropriate action, including the adoption of zoning laws, to the extent reasonable, to restrict the use of land adjacent to or in the immediate vicinity of the airport to activities and purposes compatible with normal airport operations, including the landing and taking off of aircraft."
But remember, these obligations only apply to airports that have received federal airport funding.
There are a number of measures that may be implemented to protect property around airports from incompatible land use. Some of the more common controls that might be implemented include:
A Comprehensive Plan This may also be referred to as the community's "master" or "general" plan. It is a policy guide to decisions that affect physical development of property within the control of the local governmental body. It generally deals with land use management practices.
Zoning Zoning regulations can only be effective if the Comprehensive Plan has been implemented. Zoning is the most popular method of regulating land development, and it is a legal technique that dictates various aspects of land development. Zoning laws legally dictate what uses are permitted for each parcel of land within the control of the local governmental body. Most cities and larger towns have zoning authority; however, many counties have only limited or no zoning authority.
Zoning has a number of limitations, not the least of which is that it isn't necessarily permanent. As the local legislative body changes, so can zoning. Also, most zoning laws allow an appeal process for the issuance of variances from zoning requirements.
Building Codes Building codes are designed to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the community. They adopt minimum standards for the construction of structures and are legally adopted by local government. Building codes can legally require structures to meet certain interior noise limits for structures built near airports. However, because they are local laws, building codes may differ from city to city.
Real Estate Disclosure Disclosure of the airport location and potential noise impacts from the airport is becoming increasingly common. A number of states have legislation in place that requires real estate agents and developers to disclose the location and traffic patterns of the airport.
Land Acquisition Another common land use control technique is for the airport sponsor to acquire ownership of the land surrounding the airport. When applied as an afterthought to fix earlier incompatible land uses near the airport, this method can be a costly one for local residents as well as the airport.
This is but a brief discussion of some of the methods that can be put in place to protect the airport from incompatible land use. There are others available such as land banking, navigation easements, tax incentives, and development rights.
In general, it is quite difficult to fix the problem once it exists. However, as discussed above, there are remedies available that, if applied properly, can protect not only the airport, but the community at large, while maintaining the full economic benefits of the airport.
As an airport advocate, you should investigate what measures the local governmental authority has taken in advance land use planning and zoning regulations. Obtain a copy of the local zoning map. This map will show how parcels of land near the airport are currently zoned. With this in hand, you'll have a good idea of where problem areas are located or will be located in the future.
A strategy can then be developed to seek zoning changes of these parcels of land before they become a problem for the airport. Then, follow through. Meet with local officials who are legally empowered to make and implement changes to zoning laws. Take a proactive stance and stick to it.
You or other members of your airport support group should attend planning commission meetings. This is the place where a request for a variance from applicable zoning laws will arise. The agenda for these meetings is usually published in advance of the meeting, so it's a good idea to have your name added to the list of those receiving this agenda.
And most importantly, be knowledgeable and prepared to speak up at these meetings with factual data that will convince the decision makers to protect the airport and the surrounding areas.
Advance planning of compatible land uses for parcels surrounding the airport with airport operations will go a long way in solving many of tomorrow's airport noise and safety complaints.
AOPA thanks our members for their continued support in protecting the freedom to fly.