Wendell Ford's Edsel - Or How to Delight
the Lobbyists and Enrage the Citizens

Alice H. Suter, Contributing Editor
Sound and Vibration, Jan. 1991

While Congress was embroiled in the budget deliberations last fall, some very important noise legislation slipped by, almost unnoticed. The bill was sponsored by Senator Wendell Ford of Kentucky, chairman of the Senate Aviation Subcommittee, and is known as the Airport Safety and Capacity Expansion Act of 1990. It has been dubbed Ford's Edsel by both Washington attorney Eliot Cutler and aircraft noise expert John Wesler. [FN 1] The legislation's goal was to remove the issue of airport noise (although without necessarily removing the noise) as the principal barrier to airport expansion. This would be done by increasing federal control over local airports, and by doing away with the favorite whipping boy of the airlines, the "patchwork quilt" of local noise rules. These objectives, however, may not be accomplished as anticipated.

Ford's bill required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop and implement a national noise policy. It also drastically curtailed the ability of local airports to impose noise control restrictions. The trade-off was to allow airports to impose passenger facility charges or "head taxes" to pay for their expansion programs. Most of those concerned with noise effects and control (if they were even aware of what was happening at all) believed that such a restrictive bill would go nowhere. No public hearings were held, and public input was not sought, giving further evidence that this was not "serious" legislation.

However, the airlines and particularly the air cargo industry, obviously the driving force behind the bill, lobbied vigorously for it. They were joined by Secretary of Transportation Samuel Skinner and Department of Transportation lawyers, who labeled it "environmental legislation." A few representatives of citizens organizations were present during the Senate-House conference committee deliberations, although at this point no one may gain access to the committee room. Among them was Kathy Hall, director of the Suburban O'Hare Commission, who stood in the Senate hallway for three hours watching Senator Ford's staff bring the bill out, page by page, to consult with airline lobbyists waiting outside the conference room. [FN 2]

Congress passed the bill with little debate, undoubtedly because it was overshadowed by the budget crisis, and probably also because the legislation was touted as helping the environment. Infuriated citizens and environmental groups mounted a last-ditch campaign against the bill, but it proved to be too little, too late. An important change improvement did take place during the conference between the House and Senate versions. Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota demanded that the final version include a phase-out of the noisier Stage II aircraft. The act mandates such a phase-out by December 31, 2003, with 85% of the Stage II fleet to be phased out by the year 2000. During the phase-out period, no Stage II aircraft can be added to the U.S. fleet unless it is modified to meet Stage III noise requirements.

The act requires the FAA to develop by July 1, 1991, a national noise policy which includes intermediate phase-out dates, and a detailed economic analysis of the impact of this process on the airline and air cargo industry. Perhaps the most controversial provisions of the act curtail the freedom of local airports to require noise abatement measures such as flight procedures, evening or nighttime restrictions, curfews, and noise budgets. These kinds of restrictions cannot be imposed on Stage III aircraft without the FAA's approval or the consent of all of the airlines using that airport. Restrictions on Stage II aircraft may be imposed without the approval of the FAA, but must be preceded by a rigorous public information and notice process which includes analyzing the costs and benefits of various alternatives. Any airport plan must show that its noise abatement procedures do not place an "undue burden on the national aviation system," a term that has not been defined. If the FAA believes that any airport is causing such a burden by its Stage II noise restrictions, the airport's head tax privileges can be withdrawn.

As one would expect, the reaction to the legislation has been mixed. Airline and air cargo industry representatives hail it as a major victory, since they view it as the demise of their hated "patchwork quilt." Opponents say that it gives carte blanche to the airlines, and more importantly in terms of nighttime annoyance, to the air cargo industry, which will be allowed to operate its Stage III aircraft at all hours of the night. They maintain that the bill was railroaded through Congress much too quickly and without sufficient public input. Because there were no hearings and little debate, there is no legislative history to guide the FAA in the formulation of its national noise policy. Some also feel that the phase-out of Stage II aircraft is a phony benefit since aging aircraft, increased fuel costs, and pressure from the European Community (which has a more rapid timetable for its Stage II phase-out) would force this kind of action anyway.

Proponents of the legislation believe that it has paved the way for the much needed airport expansion of the 1990s. But there is the possibility that the new act would actually thwart airport expansion rather than encourage it as intended. Because the act permits virtually unlimited operations by Stage III aircraft, airport neighbors may be inclined to block any future airport expansion with lawsuits or any other means available to them.

Citizens groups have coalesced over the issue, and have already made their views known in meetings with the FAA. They have demanded public hearings on the upcoming airport noise policy and say they will follow the FAA's actions closely. The National Organization to Insure a Sound-Controlled Environment (N.O.I.S.E.) has hired an executive director/lobbyist in the Washington area. Also, a group of citizens associations has banded together to form the National Airport Watch Group, which will hold a meeting in the New York area on February 23-24. [FN 3]

As with so many social and political issues, it boils down to questions of freedom and compromise. Airline representatives want freedom from their patchwork quilt. They don't want to have to hassle their landing and takeoff rights at every airport, require their pilots to comply with a variety of operational procedures and, as air traffic continues to grow, they want to be assured of operational slots in major metropolitan areas and wherever they need them. Attorney Eliot Cutler claims that they want to maintain their "strangleholds" on their existing hub airports, rather than take the risk of higher lease costs and landing fees at a new airport, even though the new airport may be bigger, better, safer, and quieter. [FN 4]

The airline pilots would like to be free from a series of operating procedures that vary from airport to airport. However, they won't be free of these restrictions at many airports that already have FAA approved flight procedures, and from a group of airports that were exempted from the act for reasons that are, if not political, rather obscure. These airports include Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, Orange County, Long Beach, Palm Beach, Detroit, Westchester County, and Van Nuys.

The airport operators would like to be free from the burden of civil suits, but the new act will not accommodate them in most instances. They are free, however, to levy their head tax, so long as they abide by the FAA's rules. And the FAA would like to be free to carry out its mission to foster air transportation and air safety without having to bother with angry citizens. But recent visits by citizens groups and the galvanization of the anti-aircraft-noise movement may have put a damper on the victory celebrations.

The beleagured airport neighbors, of course, want freedom from airplanes, and this wins them the reputation of kooks. But what they actually want is to be free of the effects of aircraft noise. If indeed the planes were quiet enough or far enough away, they wouldn't wake people up, ruin their TV reception during the overflight, break up their outdoor parties, repeatedly block communication between teachers and pupils, cause tempers to flare, and produce all sorts of other disagreeable outcomes. It is the absence of freedom from aircraft noise and its effects that gets the local citizens so angry; that coupled with the arrogance of the air carrier industry, which dismisses their complaints out of hand. Moreover, the FAA's role in pushing the legislation does nothing to smooth feathers that have been historically ruffled by perceived (and often real) indifference to the plight of the airport neighbors.

Lack of freedom, lack of control, being in a noisy box -- it all adds up first to feelings of helplessness, and then to rage. The fact that Congress enacted this "environmental" legislation so rapidly, secretively, and under dubious pretenses does nothing but fan the rage.

Perhaps the phase-out of Stage II aircraft will promote a quieter environment around airports. It is also quite possible that the increase in air traffic will offset the noise reduction inherent in Stage III planes. Meanwhile, there will have to be compromises on all sides, but it may be a bit optimistic to expect this from citizens who feel that most of the compromises have been theirs. The next few months should be very interesting. What will the citizens groups do? What will the FAA come up with? Will airports expand like crazy or will expansion grind to a halt? Stay tuned for the next exciting episode.


1. Airport Noise Report, Vol. 2, No. 25, pp 204 and 206, 1990.
2. Airport Noise Report, Vol. 2, No. 21, p 178, 1990.
3. Airport Noise Report, Vol. 2, No. 25, p 212, 1990.
4. Airport Noise Report, Vol. 2, No. 25, p 205, 1990.