Can Mediation Help Reduce the Public Dispute over Airport Noise Levels?

Laura Brown

Laura Brown covers transportation issues for the Boston Herald. This article appeared at the website of Mediation Information and Resource Center. It originally appeared in the July 1999 issue of Consensus, a newspaper published jointly by the Consensus Building Institute and the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program.


As air travel continues to set record growth rates around the world, people in neighborhoods near airports in many cities are facing runway expansion proposals that pit passionate concerns about noise and other quality of life issues against regional transportation needs and economic pressures.

While mediation may not be possible or appropriate in every case, limited success with dispute resolution over noise issues in some cities holds out the hope that future airport expansion proposals could be resolved without the bitter litigation or violent protest that marks past conflicts.

Although the Port of Seattle has not yet used mediation for a controversial new runway project now under way, an earlier mediation agreement to address noise issues in the communities surrounding the airport probably paved the way for the runway's approval, according to participants.

In addition to the Seattle case, which was led by experienced Seattle mediators Gerry Cormick and Alice Shorett, mediation has been used in one form or another in airport disputes in Dallas/Ft. Worth, Phoenix, Cleveland, and Narita, Japan.

The Seattle airport noise mediation agreement was signed in April 1990. Since then, federal noise legislation designed to stabilize the airlines' planning environment and avoid a patchwork of individual regulations has discouraged that kind of specific noise restriction agreement.

But many operations decisions are still controlled by airport operators. And Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials have shown a willingness to come to the table on operational issues that they control. So absent the political or legal dynamics that may make mediation a poor prospect in specific cases, airport expansion issues appear to be much like other environmental disputes, said Boston mediator Greg Sobel of Environmental Mediation Services.

"You have many interested parties, complex technical issues and diverse impacts," said Sobel. "The process concerns are common to all public disputes."

The Seattle agreement gave neighborhood residents "considerable" noise relief at night and phased in quieter planes on a faster schedule than national regulations at the same time required, said John Musgrave, one of two residents who represented the citizens of Seattle in that mediation process nearly a decade ago and one of eight community members on the 32-person mediation panel.

"it was certainly not an easy process," said Musgrave, who reported back weekly to a community caucus of about 200 people during the three-year mediation. "But I personally always felt we'd come out of it with something, an insurance policy against noise getting any worse. It was the best alternative to no agreement at all."

In addition to the community members, the panel also included representatives form major airlines at the airport, the Airline Transport Association, the FAA and the Port of Seattle.

The negotiations succeeded largely because the Port of Seattle was willing to look at a very wide range of options for operations at the airport and was able to bring the FAA into the talks as a direct participant, Cormick said.

The mediators had to help the five communities that joined the talks to organize in a way that allowed them to come to the table, he added.

The Port of Seattle paid for coordinators to help the communities set up meetings and make sure all five of the teams could meet together. The negotiating teams that emerged were much larger than the number of members who actually sat at the table, and broke regularly during the mediation discussions to caucus their members.

The entire panel - airlines, Port, FAA and community groups - reached consensus on hiring the technical consultant.

"The agreement very, very consciously only dealt with absolute noise and noise impacts," Cormick said. "It was absolutely silent on anything else but airport noise."

The FAA would have been willing to accept a mediated plan to restructure air traffic patterns, but the panel could not agree on that issue, he added.

The Port of Seattle was happy with the deal that was crafted. "What they got was the ability to go forward on a number of construction projects that could have been held up if the parties has chosen to sue," Cormick said.

The community got fewer flights at night and quieter planes, as a result of a "technology forcing" deal that gave airlines better slots if they hushed their planes, he added.

In the end, the group agreed on nighttime noise limits phased in over five years, created a noise "budget" for the airport that required airlines to reduce their share of noise every year, and phased out noisier "Stage 2" aircraft within two years.

The noise agreement was much more aggressive than the federal rules that succeeded it, but was grandfathered into the new law.

The only issue the group "fell out of bed" over was the divisive distribution of flight paths, Musgrave said. Seattle's experience with that issue, which is common to many cities grappling with airport noise, may highlight a trouble spot for future mediations.

When airport operators and federal officials suggest a more "equitable" distribution of noise, that frequently implies existing noise burdens will be shifted from one area to another, or spread to even more people.

"The attitude generally is, 'If it's over your house, it's OK, but if it's over mine, it's not,'" Musgrave said.

A proposed runway at Boston's Logan Airport has raised similar concerns in the neighborhoods surrounding the airport. The resulting new runway configurations would "redistribute" noise, lessening a heavy existing burden in some areas but in the process tripling noise in other neighborhoods.

Airport disputes are excellent candidates for pre-mediation conflict assessment, Sobel said. Individual, off-the-record interviews are likely to offer early clues about the potential for a successful mediation, he added.

"You can look at where there might be an overlap on a solution based on what their interests are," Sobel said.

On the other hand, the mediator may also discover likely detours or roadblocks.

"It really goes to what alternatives people have to negotiate a deal," Sobel said. "If they can fall back on legal rights, it doesn't mean they can't reach a deal, it just means they have more power."

The alternatives may be the driving force for the amount of room people have in bringing their positions to the table, he said.

From his perspective, Musgrave said the mediation process would never work unless the airport operator is willing to invite the parties in, sit down at the table, and "give a little," like everybody else. "If you don't have that going in, it's just a harangue," he said.

Some airport disputes may be far too politicized from the outset for any of the parties to suggest mediation, however.

In those cases, Boston mediator Jack Wofford suggests that a third party, with no direct ties to the dispute, may be able to step in and offer a forum to resolve the issue.

Sobel agreed. "There are times when parties are hesitant to propose mediation because they see it as a sign of weakness," he said, adding that sometimes the parties can agree on a conflict assessment, without agreeing to mediate. That process may open the door to eventual mediation.

Musgrave's own experience makes him hopeful that dispute resolution of airport-related issues could take off.

"I think it's far better policy to get together and talk about these things, as long as you have an action plan, a specific purpose in talking and a goal," he said. "You don't ever please everybody for sure, but everybody has to give a little."