AirportNoiseLaw.org
FIGHTING AIRPORT NOISE

Updated October 12, 2016





Airport noise cannot be stopped, short of closing down an airport. But it can be mitigated. Getting to that point is an extremely complex process that has ground down many citizens who ultimately decided to "get a life" away from endless meetings with airport and FAA officials. Suing the airport for monetary damages may offer sweet revenge to some — and perhaps make noise more expensive to the airport — but it's not likely to make your community more livable.

Seasoned veterans will say that it's impossible under the present regime to even deal directly with noise as a problem because of the elaborate regulations spun by the Federal Aviation Administration. The real problem, they will tell you, is understanding these regulations well enough to be able to match wits with FAA and airport officials. Oh boy! Get a life!

What to do? You alone cannot attack airport noise -- not even with the help of your next-door neighbor. You and your community will get nowhere in mitigating airport noise to a livable level until you organize on a massive scale. If airport noise bothers only a handful of people in your community, forget it — move out. But if the lives of a significant segment of your community are disrupted by aircraft noise, you've got the potential power to do something.

This section of "Airport Noise Law" has links to the essential information you will need to become effective in ending unreasonable aircraft noise. Because grassroots organizations quickly disintegrate in the face of the complexity of the bureaucracy and regulations surrounding aircraft noise, we try to describe in plain language the key airport actions that active citizens should focus on, such as:

  • Revision of the airport master plan (a policy-planning document).
  • Revision of an airport layout plan (this is required by the FAA and is not the same as a master plan).
  • Noise studies to support requests for capital improvement funds ("Part 150 studies").
  • Cost-benefit studies to support noise-mitigation measures ("Part 161 studies").
  • Environmental impact analyses of airport expansion or capital projects (i.e., an "environmental assessment" or "environmental impact statement" required by federal law or analyses required by state law).
  • FAA approval of air traffic routes, including take-off and landing patterns.

This section is necessarily always evolving. We want to post information that is useful today — the details of proven political strategies, as well as ways of getting results from the FAA and airports. If there are specific topics you want covered here, or you have experience to share, send e-mail to the website editor.


Getting Organized

The Ultimate Solution — Your local problem will never be solved without cooperating with groups in other communities to change the FAA's mandate.

About Nonprofit Organizations — Incorporation limits the legal liability of individuals in the group and creates strong accountability both within the organization and toward the community at large. However, many respected community-based organizations are unincorporated associations.

Homeowner Associations — Homeowner associations can be effective advocates for airport noise mitigation if a significant enough portion of homes are affected by noise. In fact, it can be argued that directors of homeowner associations have a fiduciary duty to protect members' homes from devaluation due to airport noise. A California Court of Appeals has ruled that homeowner associations may contribute to political action committees that lobby against airport expansion -- see Finley v. Superior Court Orange County. In this case several homeowner associations in Orange County, California contributed over half a million dollars in two years to support a county ballot measure that would have prevented conversion of a closed military base into a commercial public airport.

Know the Technical Lingo — become familiar with some fundamental concepts so you don't get bamboozled by technocrats.

Know Key Statutes and Regulations — you only need to be familiar with a small number of statutes and regulations to understand in principle the complex framework of regulations governing airports. See especially Acts of Congress Relevant to Airport Noise Control.

Know Where to Get Answers

Communicate with Others Working on the Issue


Some History

Acts of Congress Relevant to Airport Noise Control

History of U.S. Legislation Concerning Airport Noise

History of Aircraft Noise Regulation in the U.S. to 1981

What Happened to the Noise Control Act of 1972? — The EPA's Office of Noise Abatement and Control was charged by Congress with implementing the Noise Control Act of 1972. After ONAC was effectively put out of business by the Reagan Administration, does the Noise Control Act have any real effect? See Creation of ONAC and The Defunding of ONAC. In each session of Congress in recent years an effort has been made, unsuccessfully, to fund again the ONAC (see Legislation).


Dealing with the Airport

Community Involvement Activities at Airports — a survey by the FAA of ways airports "involve" private citizens in .... well, we don't know, as the report doesn't exactly say what the purpose of "involvement" is.

Disclosure of Identity of Noise Complainants — Is the public owner of an airport required to disclose the identity of airport noise complainants if requested? The question depends in large part on whether the state has an equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act. Many people will not register complaints of any kind unless they can do so anonymously. In California the question whether the privacy of complainants is stronger than any public right to access government records was first addressed in California Attorney General Opinion 94-903 (1995), which proposed a balancing test for deciding the question. The issue was later addressed by an appellate court in City of San Jose v. Superior Court (San Jose Mercury News) (1999), which concluded that a newspaper was not entitled to know the names, addresses, and telephone numbes of persons complaining about noise to San Jose International Airport.

Using Mediation to Reduce Airport Noise Levels

The Airspace Structure

Letters of Agreement with the FAA — an airport can request from FAA air traffic control that it follow specific noise-mitigation measures. If the FAA agrees, the airport and FAA should sign a letter of agreement to document the measures.

Financing Airport Expansion

Who Pays for Airport Development? (1998)
Airport Development Needs and Financing Options (1997)
Bonds Backed by Passenger Facility Charges (1996)
Airport Finance Challenges for the Next Decade (1995)
Airport Financing: The Airport Improvement Program (1996)
Airport Improvement Program — This is the FAA's website on the AIP, including data on AIP grants by region and to individual airports.


Dealing with the FAA

About the FAA
  • FAA Units — local, regional, and national offices.
  • Inside the FAA — excerpts from a tell-all book by a former Department of Transportation inspector general.

FAA publications — valuable information for community leaders who want to understand the FAA's rules and policies on airport noise. See especially the FAA Advisory Circulars.

FAA and Noise Abatement — the agency gets to veto any initiatives to control noise (with some important exceptions), but has no responsibility to reduce noise. See the following:

FAA Funds for Noise Abatement — the FAA doles out billions of dollars under two programs -- the Airport Improvement Program (AIP) and Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) Program -- to buy out private property in the way of airport expansion and to insulate homes and schools from the ravages of aircraft noise. For more information see "Airport Improvement Program" in the Index to the Website.

Freedom of Information Act and the FAA — The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) gives citizens a statutory right to records of the FAA and other federal agencies. FOIA lists nine exemptions from disclosure, but these exemptions do not cover the vast majority of records. (The FAA's FOIA webpage states: "FAA publications and much regulatory information and data are publicly available and an FOIA request may not be necessary to obtain it. If you have questions about the need for an FOIA request, please contact the headquarters FOIA office.") When you make a request for information from an FAA office, DO NOT say you are entitled to the information under FOIA. Once you characterize your request as a "FOIA request", your request will be treated under the FAA's elaborate (and time-consuming) rules for responding to a "request subject to FOIA". If the FAA office tells you your request must follow the agency's FOIA rules, only then should you consider your request a "FOIA request". See Department of Transportation FOIA Rules (49 CFR Part 7), which cover the FAA.

National Airspace System Architecture is the FAA's comprehensive plan for the future. The original document (version 4.0) was completed in 1998 and published January 1999. The "NAS Architecture" is updated at the website.

Strategies to Evaluate Aircraft Routing Plans — a report issued in January 1999 by an independent study group following heated political debate over the responsiveness of the Federal Aviation Administration to complaints from various communities in New Jersey about overflight noise.


Technical Issues

Measuring and Modeling Aircraft Noise — The FAA's definition of aircraft noise predominates because airports rely almost entirely on FAA-controlled funds to pay for noise abatement programs. See:
Measuring and Modeling Aircraft Noise — An excellent overview of the key concepts, written for the layperson.
The Federal Government's Method of Assessing Noise Impacts
The FAA's Approach to Measuring Noise
The History of the Day-night Average Sound Level
Equivalent Sound Level and Its Relationship to Other Noise Measures — A very technical discussion, but an important document because it is the earliest document prepared by a federal regulatory agency that spells out in detail the rationale for the method of measuring aircraft noise adopted by the FAA.

Computer Models — Computer models are used to estimate increases in aircraft noise, economic growth, or any other future condition due to airport development.

Aviation Environmental Tool Suite — The FAA's Office of Environment and Energy continues to develop a comprehensive suite of software tools for consideration of the environmental effects of aviation, known as the Aviation Environmental Tool Suite. The main goal of this effort is to be able to characterize quantitatively the interdependence of aviation-related noise and emissions, impacts on health and welfare, and industry and consumer costs, under different policy, technology, operational, and market scenarios. The resulting software replaces many so-called legacy computer models, such as the Integrated Noise Model, used by the FAA for many years.

Regional Industrial Multiplier System (RIMS) — This model, developed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, calculates the direct, indirect, and "induced" economic benefits of an airport. It is a standard model approved by the FAA.

Noise Exposure Maps — The most critical element in the analysis of the noise impacts of airport development, noise exposure maps (NEM) show the assumed "boundaries" (limits) of the noise impacts of aircraft in the area around an airport, based on estimates produced by computer models. NEMs show the boundaries of noise measured at different decibels.


Political Strategy

Trying to fix problems with noise and air pollution due to the operation of an airport is hugely limited by the fact that federal law (both acts of Congress and the regulations written and interpreted by the FAA) limit the ability of local communities to abate the negative impacts of airport operation. Historically the federal government has washed it hands of any responsibility or liability for noise nuisance due to flight, but at the same time has tied the hands of local communities and authorities to abate the nuisance. The lesson is clear: real, long-lasting relief will come only with changes in national aviation policy. Nevertheless, productive local action is possible. The key issue with any local government action is whether the action is preempted by federal law (see Preemption). For examples of local action see the ballot measures under Local Ordinances.


Key Legal Information

Acts of Congress Relevant to Airport Noise Control — a chronology of statutes.

Airport Noise and Residential Property Value — Owners of property next to an airport may have a claim against the airport owner for loss of value on their property due to noise and overflight.

Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990

49 U.S.C. 47521 - 47533 — text of the Act.

FAA Policy Statements on ANCA and the Implementing Regulations (14 CFR Part 161) — quotations from FAA documents showing how the FAA understands ANCA.

ANCA's Legislative History.

Wendell Ford's Edsel, Or How to Delight the Lobbyists and Enrage the Citizens — editorial (1991) on the passage of ANCA.

The Consequences of ANCA as Seen in 1990.

Key Court Cases — Summaries and full text of cases in federal court, California, and to a lesser extent other states, dealing with legal remedies for airport noise.

Noise Abatement and Control: Overview of Federal Standards and Regulations — A brief paper prepared in 2000 by the Congressional Research Service.

State Aviation Statutes — Although states cannot control aircraft in flight, they can and do regulate the planning and operation of airports and many aviation-related matters.

Suing Your Airport for Nuisance Damages in Small Claims Court — Going to court is usually a bad idea. Taking your fight from the political arena to the courts usually saps your resources, diverts your attention away from your real strength, throws you into an arena where your adversaries have the advantage, and ties you up for years in boring technical arguments. Nevertheless, there's an easy way to hold an airport accountable for its environmental assault on private property.