Released last month by the NextGen Advisory Committee, a group formed by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to help it implement new GPS-based takeoff and landing procedures at the nation’s airports known as “NextGen,” the report states that the agency approached the committee to help it devise a way to comply with legislative language in the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012.
Specifically, the act states that the use of NextGen procedures must “result in measurable reductions in fuel consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, and noise, on a per flight basis” compared to existing instrument-based flight procedures.
However, as the NextGen committee report states, the FAA has no method for measuring noise on a “per flight basis.” Currently, the FAA measures noise impacts using a method that averages noise levels over a 24-hour period, not per flight, to determine impacts on communities near airports.
The FAA approached the committee “for guidance on how ‘measurable reductions’ in noise from performance-based navigation procedures on a ‘per flight basis’ might be assessed” as mandated, given that the FAA “typically uses methods that aggregate noise, which take into account the noise exposure of people on the ground from aircraft flights over an average daily period,” read the report.
Starting in February of last year, the same month the act was passed, the FAA began using a new NextGen flight pattern out of LaGuardia Airport known as the “TNNIS” (pronounced “tennis”) climb, which resulted in planes flying lower and more frequently over neighborhoods in northeast Queens.
The change was intended to increase efficiency and cut down on delays and fuel consumption, but it also resulted in increased noise complaints from residents in neighborhoods like Flushing, Bayside and Douglaston.
The FAA approved the use of the new flight pattern on a more regular basis after conducting a six-month test and issuing what is known as a “categorical exclusion,” which precludes the agency from completing a more thorough environmental review.
“After conducting an environmental review as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the [FAA] has determined that the increased use of this NextGen procedure will not produce significant environmental impacts, as defined under NEPA,” an FAA spokesperson told this paper last week.
But in the opinion of the NextGen Committee, the FAA isn't able to issue a categorical exclusion for NextGen procedures.
The report called a solution to measuring noise on a per flight basis “a technical issue that must be solved to enable” the categorical exclusion to be used.
In other words, the FAA has no method to ensure it is complying with the legislative language to ensure noise is reduced on a “per flight basis,” but went ahead and issued a categorical exclusion determining the TNNIS route – a NextGen procedure - has no significant environmental impact.
According to an FAA spokesperson, the agency issued the categorical exclusion based on existing methods of measuring environmental impacts, but didn't measure levels on a “per flight basis” as was mandated in the act.
"The new categorical exclusion that was legislated in...the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 is not yet in use and will not be used until the FAA resolves the noise determination issue and issues implementation guidance," a statement from the FAA read.
A spokesperson refused to say whether the FAA would revisit the issue and do the legislatively required environmental review for the TNNIS climb once the technical capacity exists.
Janet McEneaney, who co-founded the group Queens Quiet Skies earlier this year to address the issue of plane noise, said this is more evidence that the FAA didn't do its due diligence before approving the new procedure.
“It would appear to confirm what we have suspected all along, that the FAA didn't complete the thorough environmental review under the guidelines the law requires,” she said.
In May, the FAA agreed to meet with a committee of elected officials and community experts to explain “the environmental process it followed to determine that the new procedure would not create significant environmental impacts.”
However, the agency has said it will not review the specific changes in flight paths and procedures. A date for the meeting has not been set.
McEneaney said she had hoped the committee would be able to ask questions and have a back-and-forth dialogue with the community, but fears that might not happen.
“We have people who have been going over documents for hours and hours and coming up with questions we have for the FAA,” she said. “I'm worried the FAA is only going to be interested in schooling us, but I think we deserve answers.”