For decades, aviation visionaries have touted a coming revolution in avionics and piloting called “free flight,” when communications and computational technology will free commercial flying from the limitations and inefficiencies of ground-based traffic control. This year the next stage in free flight’s evolution will debut in Seattle, preparatory to a national roll-out, under the uplifting moniker Greener Skies. Those living in the flight path may find its auditory effects less uplifitng.
By relying on satellite-based GPS and onboard software, pilots will descend smoothly, precisely, and continuously to Sea-Tac, rather than loudly “stair-stepping” down in stages under ground-control direction. This will enable the airlines to reduce both their descent footprints — following tighter, narrower corridors — and their fuel consumption. For the residents of many communities alongside the descent corridors, this will mean less jet noise. But not for the most afflicted: those who live right under corridors that will become increasingly dense with descending jets.
Greener Skies' environmental assessment, which the Federal Aviation Administration approved in November, finds that noise impacts will diminish in broad vertical swaths from Wallingford and Fremont to downtown Seattle and Federal Way on the west and from Lake City to the Rainier Valley to the town of Pacific. But they’ll increase along the axis of Sea-Tac Airport’s runways, over Greenlake, the U-District, Capitol Hill, and, especially, Beacon Hill.
The reason, ironically, is greater efficiency: With GPS-guided continuous descent, air traffic will pack more tightly into the preferred north-south corridors and a diversion route over Elliott Bay (so Admiral and Alki will also get more noise). FAA officials contend that the additional noise impacts will be “indistinguishable,” less than 1.5 decibels more than present levels.
This news comes as a cruel joke to Beacon Hill residents, who’ve learned through long experience not to take the claims of aviation and airport officials at face value. Together with adjacent Georgetown, Beacon Hill is the most jet-rattled part of Seattle; it has suffered for decades from an excess of aircraft presence and an insufficiency of official concern. Sea-Tac’s north-flow departure route, used when the wind blows from the north, and south-flow arrival route, used when it blows from the south, run right along the hill’s long spine before diverging toward Elliott Bay and Lake Washington.
Living on Queen Anne, I used to snarl at the planes that occasionally roared overhead, mistaking or ignoring their designated approach over Elliott Bay. But I realized how much worse things could get when I spent a few summer hours in the otherwise tranquil Lockmore subdivision on Beacon Hill seven years ago. It was a shooting gallery; planes roared over in a stream, a minute or so apart. Conversation would stop, then resume when a particularly noisy one passed.
Otherwise, Beacon Hill, with its single-family character, wide views and proximity to downtown, would seem situated to be one of Seattle’s more desirable neighborhoods. Instead, the real estate site Zillow pegs its median home value at $289,500, just three-quarters the citywide median. “I sell homes here,” says real estate agent Erik Stanford, who’s lived on the hill for 25 years. “I used to tell people that unless you’re really sensitive, the noise isn’t so bad, that you get used to it. I can’t tell them that anymore.” Other residents say the same thing, only more vehemently.
FAA and Sea-Tac officials though, say flight volumes and noise impacts have actually declined in recent years, thanks to the recession and to the airlines flying quieter jets.
Stanford, who spearheads a Southeast Seattle group pointedly named the Quieter Skies Task Force, is the latest in a line of Southeast Seattle residents-turned-activists to take up the air noise cause. He struggles with the same challenges and frustrations as his predecessors: trying to organize a multilingual, multiracial community that’s tended to be fragmented and politically passive; dealing with a federal bureaucracy whose mission is all about moving planes, not safeguarding the quality of life down below; and complaining fruitlessly to an airport authority that monitors noise levels, but insists it can’t do anything to change them.
Even getting a meeting can mean running an obstacle course. In September, the FAA scheduled just two public meetings on the Greener Skies environmental assessment: in Federal Way for the corridor south of Sea-Tac and, for the north, in Ballard, which won’t be appreciably louder. It held the original scoping meetings last January in Federal Way and in Shoreline, which will actually get less noise under Greener Skies.
Why not on Beacon Hill, which will be more affected? FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer says the meetings are arranged by a consultant who's handling the Greener Skies roll-out nationwide, and are held where space is available. Stanford thinks it’s because they wanted to avoid the heat. He says there were more attendees in Ballard from Beacon Hill than from Ballard. They were disappointed to find that it was show-and-tell, with no opportunity to ask questions during the session.
The ensuing outcry (echoed by Mayor McGinn's office) prompted FAA officials to schedule a meeting on Beacon Hill in October, where they would take questions. But about a week before, they cancelled that gathering, saying that key personnel wouldn’t be available then. That didn’t go down well. Erik Stanford had lined up interpreters and prepared a quadrilingual brochure for the meeting. Robert Bismuth, a Magnolia Community Club trustee and veteran of past FAA dealings cancelled a business trip to attend. When they cancelled the meeting on short notice, he says, “that sent a message to the community: You don’t count.”
The rescheduled meeting, in November at Cleveland High, did not go well either. The FAA reps seemed ill-prepared: no printed agenda, no signs directing attendees to the hard-to-find auditorium. About 100 attendees peppered them with sharp questions about flight routing and noise monitoring; they demurred on many, saying “Stan can explain that.” (Stan Shepherd, the manager of Sea-Tac’s noise programs, who seemed more informed and sympathetic.)
Such hand-offs are all too familiar to noise-weary, jet-wary citizens. “If you call the Port of Seattle to complain about noise, they’ll take a complaint and say, ‘It’s out of our hands, you need to talk to the FAA,’” sighs Stanford. “It’s a terminal condition — the Port pointing at the FAA, the FAA pointing at the Port.”`