Jet noise solutions: They're not rocket science

Two answers to roaring skies, from an ex-pilot and a vindicated property owner.
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Two answers to roaring skies, from an ex-pilot and a vindicated property owner.

As a retired airline pilot, Dana Gerry brings a special perspective to the problem of jet noise. For 21 years, he flew international routes out of Honolulu for Continental Airlines. Then, in 2005, he moved back to Seattle — to Beacon Hill.

Gerry is amazed and appalled at how the noise over his neighborhood has grown despite the switch to quieter planes, and at how little the industry he used to work for does to control it. “There are many measures they could take,” he says. For example: “Airports shut down all over Europe at 11 at night. In China and Taiwan they shut down.”

The airlines would howl at the idea of giving up wee-hours flights — and doubtless clamor even louder than they do now for a fourth runway, probably at Paine Field, to make up for them. But Gerry has another suggestion that wouldn’t reduce operations at all, and that would provide another benefit dear to the airlines’ hearts: saving fuel.

When jets drop their landing gear and wing flaps on approach, they burn more fuel and make more noise, obviating the much-touted noise reductions in newer planes. “When I flew, I always did it at about 1,200 feet, about five miles out,” says Gerry. “Under visual flight rules [for Sea-Tac], you must have everything down by 1,000 feet. When you’re on an instrument approach, in lousy weather, you’d normally do it at about 2,300 feet” — and before 1,900 feet, according to Sea-Tac rules.

But from his hilltop perch, Gerry sees Sea-Tac-bound pilots drop their gear as high as 6,000 feet, about 18 miles from the airport, compounding their noise impact and fuel consumption. “The increase in noise is just astounding, even with the quieter aircraft — and the pollution, the crud that’s on my porch in morning!"

“If these guys paid for their own fuel, they wouldn’t do that," says Gerry. "If they would just hold gear and flaps up till they got to the outer marker, about 1,700 feet, they’d save as much fuel as they’d use on a roundabout approach.” An approach like the Elliott Bay to Duwamish loop that spares residential areas, but which the airlines reject because it adds distance.

Could Sea-Tac Airport add a gear-free perimeter to the list of noise-reducing procedures it recommends airlines follow? Gerry says Narita Airport in Japan specified where pilots should drop gear, in order to avoid dropping accumulated ice onto homes below. But over here, the FAA says in an email response to a query, "the pilot in command decides [based on] factors including aircraft performance characteristics, the need to increase or reduce speed and weather conditions."

Sea-Tac’s noise-reduction manager, Stan Shepperd, puts it more vehemently: “An airport operator would never get into a situation of telling a pilot when to lower gear or flaps. When they’ve got a hundred things to think about — preparing for landing, communicating with passengers — you don’t want to interfere.

“It gets into priorities. Safety is the priority. We want that gear down to make sure of it!”

Safety and noise controls (plus fuel savings) aren’t mutually exclusive, Gerry insists. “But it’s like talking to a wall. These guys aren’t going to listen.” Instead he’s tried to share his ideas with Alaska Airlines’ vice president for flight operations. “But he won’t take my calls.”

He may not have it as bad as Beacon Hill residents, but David Ortman still fumed over the Sea-Tac-bound jets that fly low, loud and at all hours over his home in Loyal Heights, at the north end of Ballard. But as an environmental attorney, ex-director of Friends of the Earth’s Northwest office, one-time candidate for port commissioner, and irrepressible civic gadfly, he’s not the type to take such impositions lightly. Finally he decided to get something for his trials.

Last year, Ortman appealed his property tax assessment, on the grounds that jet noise had reduced his home value, especially after Sea-Tac opened its controversial third runway in 2008. In August the county’s Board of Adjustment concurred: “After reviewing the arguments and evidence provided by the parties, and considering the noise issue raised by the petitioner,” it granted his appeal. Ortman then filed a tort claim with the Port of Seattle seeking compensation for that lost property value. (Sample: “Date of incident: 2010-current. Time of incident: 4:30am-1:30am.”)

A Port risk manager rejected Ortman's claim. “It is unfortunate that the value of your home has gone down,” she wrote, but don’t blame us: The Port doesn’t determine what jet models are flown or their approach and take-off routes, the airlines and Federal Aviation Administration do. So tell it to the feds.

Ortman is doing just that; he’s filed a claim with the FAA. He’s also requested that the Port reconsider its rejection, arguing that the increased jet traffic and noise are predictable consequences of the third runway undertaken (against much public opposition) by the Port.

It sounds like a lot of trouble for a token award; Ortman sought and received only a $100 reduction in his assessment. But that’s not the point; he says. He's trying to prove that Sea-Tac jet noise reduces property values, and establish a precedent. Homeowners on the airport’s margins have sued the Port for decades, often winning more substantial settlements. But at 19 miles, Ortman may be the most distant neighbor to do so. Whatever precedent he sets might apply to hundreds of thousands of other residents, many of them living in much nearer, more noise-afflicted neighborhoods.        


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

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 SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.