The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently implemented new takeoff and landing procedures at area airports known as “NextGen.” NextGen allows planes to fly closer together by using GPS and satellite-based technologies.
This cuts down on delays for travelers, but it also means that planes fly tighter routes closer to the ground, resulting in a marked increase in plane noise for neighborhoods in northeast Queens, such as Flushing and Bayside.
“When I was an airport manager, we used to say there is no lane in the sky,” said Robert Whitehair, a Douglaston resident and member of Queens Quiet Skies, which hosted last week's meeting at Bayside High School. “Well, now there is going to be a lane in the sky. There will be a very precise path that airplanes, especially the noisy airplanes, will fly.”
At the meeting, members of Queens Quiet Skies gave residents the same presentation they have been giving to elected officials and community leaders in an attempt to pressure the FAA into doing an environmental study on the effects of the changes.
According to the group, the FAA has competed environmental studies in other large cities where NextGen is being implemented, but has decided not to do a similar study in the New York metropolitan area.
Instead, the agency employed what is known as a “categorical exclusion,” deciding after a test of the new flight patterns last summer that there would be no additional impacts or effects on neighborhoods near the airport, hence no need for an environmental study.
“The choices the FAA has made are questionable,” said Rebecca Bratspies, a professor with the CUNY School of Law's Center for Environmental Reform. “To proceed down the path in light of the dramatic impact it has had on the community, I think is wholly inappropriate. If a decision is controversial, they are not supposed to use a categorical exemption. And this is highly controversial, people are upset.”
Bratspies said the FAA can still implement the new technology, but do it in a way that minimizes the effects on the community. She said residents should be writing and calling the FAA to urge them to do a proper environmental study, because the categorical exemption is not necessarily a final and binding document.
“I don't think the agency acted in bad faith and would reconsider the decision,” said Bratspies.
Residents first started to notice the increase in noise last summer. After some pressure from local elected officials who were starting to receive complaints from local residents, the FAA admitted that it was conducting a six-month test of a new flight pattern out of LaGuardia that would conclude in August of 2012.
Almost immediately following the test, the FAA issued the categorical exclusion waiving an environmental study, declared the test a success, and began using the route on a permanent basis.
Janet McEneaney, a founding member of Queens Quiet Skies, moved to Bayside 14 years ago. She said the changes made by the FAA have greatly diminished the quality of life in northeast Queens.
“Last summer you could not sit out in your backyard and have a barbecue, and when they are very low and very frequent, you can not talk to someone in your own living room because you can't hear each other,” McEneaney said.
McEneaney has set up an email account, firstname.lastname@example.org, for residents who want more information on the changes or want to get involved with the group.
At a meeting with the FAA in March that was attended by over 200 local residents, FAA officials promised to create a roundtable that includes community representatives who have a say in changes made at the area's airports. Similar roundtables already exist in many large metro airports, and even at some smaller airports.
However, days before last week's meeting, McEneaney said that she received a letter from the FAA stating that it didn't intend to create a roundtable, but rather something more along the lines of a community advisory committee, and that it would be up to the Port Authority, not the FAA, to implement it.
“Our ultimate goal is to have a voice and a seat at the table because we are stakeholders,” said McEneaney. “The only solutions to these problems so far have been created by the aviation industry.”
And some see profit for the airline industry as a driving force. At the March meeting, Assemblyman Ed Braunstein suggested that the changes were made to permit airlines to fly more flights in and out of area airports with little concern on the impacts of surrounding neighborhoods.
“I don't know how we can possibly let this go,” said Braunstein last week. “There's no way what they're doing can be tolerable or legal.”
The noise has gotten so bad over Jimmy Puppa's home on 32nd Avenue in Bayside that his wife is urging him to consider giving in and moving away from Bayside.
“You never heard them before, and then all of a sudden there they were,” said Puppa, a lifetime resident of northeast Queens. “You can't even sleep.”
When asked if he was optimistic that the FAA would be address the community's concerns, he gave a terse reply.
“No,” he said.