If earplugs don't work, try phone sex

Aviation officials suggest a novel recourse for citizens afflicted by Sea-Tac jet noise.

David Ortman was used to getting shined on when he called to complain about Sea-Tac-bound jets flying low and loud over his Loyal Heights home. And after decades as an environmental activist, he thought he knew all about official runarounds. But even he was surprised at the response he got last weekend when he called the number on the Federal Aviation Administration’s website, 206-214-2500. He (and I, when I repeated the call) reached a recording at the airport control tower, directing anyone with noise complaints to call 1-800-826-1142. There a cheery woman’s voice advised us to call another number, 1-800-313-2300, where “exciting local people want to talk to you now!” A response at last! But upon calling that number, we heard, “Hey there, sexy guy, welcome to an exciting new way to go live, one on one, with hot, horny girls….”

There are several possible reasons aviation officials would refer callers to a phone-sex line. Having persistently failed to satisfy or mollify noise-rattled citizens, they may want to distract them. Or, alarmed at all the threatened government shutdowns, they may be exploring fallback opportunities. Or, more likely, they goofed.

Whatever the reason, the FAA fixed its voicemail message Tuesday afternoon, after a call from an enquiring reporter. It now refers callers to the Sea-Tac Airport Noise Information Line, operated by the Port of Seattle, which owns the airport. Not that that will do them much good. Weary port officials keep telling complainants there’s little they can do; the FAA, not the Port, dictates flight schedules and approach routes. And, as the Seattle Times’ Jessie Van Berkel reported in July, while noise levels have surged in jet-shocked Federal Way, they still fall just below the threshold (an average 65 decibels) for federal funding of noise mitigation. That despite the fact that, according to the Times, the EPA and World Health Organization recommend a maximum average of 55 decibels and other cities have gotten funding with less than 65.

Not only Federal Way’s eardrums are hurting. The Times reported that though the noise has softened somewhat in recent years over Seatac, Burien, and other near airport neighbors, it’s climbed at monitoring sites farther off: Federal Way to the south, Highline, Medina, Magnolia, and Maple Leaf to the north.

Perhaps pilots are descending sooner, then gliding quietly over the near approach. Whatever they’re doing, they’re making life miserable for Ortman and his neighbors, poised between the Maple Leaf and Magnolia monitors. Since July 2010 he’s chronicled more than 2,000 flights that seemed to be flying near or below 3,000 feet, and confirmed many on the Port’s WebTrak site. "Sometimes they were only minutes apart, often beginning before 4:30 in the morning until well after 1am,” he recounts. “They sound like they are landing in the front yard and can be clearly heard over a TV or radio plus a noisy furnace. When I called the Port in summer of 2010, they offered up an excuse that because of repaving of the middle runway they were now diverting planes over North Seattle and that this would change in September. It changed all right, and got worse.”

And how, Ortman asks, can it be fuel-efficient for planes approaching from the south to fly north almost to Shoreline before turning back toward Sea-Tac?

If he’s not satisfied with the FAA's answer, he could take its advice and ask those hot, horny girls. If he can still hear them over the airplanes.

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. Scigliano also works as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a marine science and environmental program based at the University of Washington. He can be reached at eric.scigliano@crosscut.com.


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