aircraft noise: the ailment and the treatment

By Arline L. Bronzaft, Ph.D., Chair, Aircraft Noise Abatement Group of New York and New Jersey (ANAG) | Hearing Rehabilitation Quarterly – Special Edition (2001)

the new meaning of f.a.a.

The summer of 2000 was marked by an unusually high number of aircraft delays, especially at LaGuardia Airport in New York City. These delays continued into the Fall and the Winter months as well. Overseeing air transportation and, as a result, largely responsible for this mess in air travel is the Federal Aviation Administration, frequently identified by the letters FAA. However, this past year the letters “F.A.A.” could be used to describe the physical and mental state of the air travelers who were abandoned at airline terminals, uncertain of ever reaching their destinations – Fatigue, Aggravation and Anger.

Listening to these deserted passengers describe their feelings on television news programs reminded me of another group of individuals who have been similarly mistreated by the United States Federal Aviation Administration, namely, residents who are overwhelmed daily by the ever increasing number of noisy aircraft flying above their homes. They too suffer from Fatigue, Aggravation and Anger. The acronym, FAA, traditionally used to identify the agency charged with supervising air travel in this country, has now come to signify a disorder elicited by the failure of this agency to act responsibly to air travelers who expect to arrive at their destinations stress-free and responsively to nearby airport residents who are stressed-out daily by aircraft noise.

Although it remains to be seen whether the Federal Aviation Administration will find ways to ameliorate the problem of air passenger delays, and as a result eradicate the pain and suffering of these passengers, one could surmise how the agency plans to deal with residents suffering from aircraft noise from a letter written by Arlene Feldman, Regional Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration to Dr. Allen Greene of Queens, New York (personal communication, December 3, 1997): “Residents should seek to understand noise issues and the steps that can be taken to minimize its effects. Prospective residents to an airport noise impacted area should be cognizant of the effect noise may have on their quality of life.” Adding insult to injury, Ms. Feldman urges people who have lived in their homes before the onslaught of increased air travel to be “cognizant of the effect before purchasing their homes?” The Federal Aviation Administration, represented by Ms. Feldman, is asking Queens residents to learn to cope with the aircraft noise or to find ways to protect themselves from the noise. In other words, residents are to seek their own solutions to the problem of aircraft noise .

Furthermore, residents can no longer call in their noise complaints to the Federal Aviation Administration because the agency stopped taking noise complaints by telephone two years ago. Residents are now told to call their nearby airports with these complaints. Since the Federal Aviation Administration “… is responsible for regulating aircraft and airport noise…” and since 1990 “…Congress forbade airport operators from enacting noise abatement measures concerning the newest generation of airplanes unless they have been approved by the FAA,” (Shapiro, 1991), the Federal Aviation Administration is directing complaints to an authority that lacks the power to alleviate overhead aircraft noise.

Unlike air passengers who expect the federal agency to remedy their air travel problems, residents living near airports, who have been the recipients of a letter similar to the one above, or who have called their local airports as directed, have no illusions about the Federal Aviation Administration’s desire to alleviate aircraft noise in the near future. A more likely expectation is the continuation of the Fatigue, Aggravation and Anger (“F.A.A.”) syndrome which has robbed them of a decent quality of life.

airport noise is hazardous to our well being!

Imagine awakening most mornings to the sounds of overhead planes that seem to be landing in your bedroom. Put yourself in the place of the homeowner who is overwhelmed by overhead jet noise while barbecuing in the backyard. Think of how you would react to your child crying “No” and striking the air with her fist as she once again experiences the noisy airplane disturbing her playtime.

These are just three examples from the lives of the enormous numbers of people who each day have to deal with intrusive, disturbing aircraft noise. You, like they, would feel annoyed, distressed and angry.

More specifically when asked to report their feelings to the aircraft noises that penetrate their homes, some residents describe a churning in the stomach; others describe a pounding in the head; still others talk about the blood rushing to their faces. With looks of desperation and anguish all reveal one recurring thought: “Please, make the noise go away!” The common medical term to describe what these people are experiencing is stress – stress that can bring about increases in blood pressure, a rise in the level of cholesterol, or take the form of a changed heart beat. If this stress were to continue day after day, as it does in the lives of people who live with aircraft noise, then there is the possibility of cardiovascular, circulatory, digestive or respiratory problems.

But does the stress experienced by those living with aircraft noise result in physiological disorders? There are extensive reviews of studies on people disturbed by noises from nearby highways, railroads and airports (Berglund & Lindvall, 1995; Fay, 1991, Kryter, 1994; Tempest, 1985). The Health Council of the Netherlands in its report entitled “Public Health Impact of Large Airports” (1999) summed up the findings of numerous noise/health studies as follows: “The reported non-auditory effects in noise range from social-psychological effects such as annoyance, effects on mental health, effects on sleep, effects on performance to stress-related health effects such as hypertension and ischaemic heart disease.” Despite the need for additional research linking noise to health, Passchier-Vermeer and Passchier (2000) still concluded that “Exposure to noise constitutes a health risk.”

Especially problematic was the finding by Evans and Lapore (1993) that children living or attending school near a major airport were more likely to have elevated blood pressure. When a new airport was opened in Munich, Evans and his colCenters were able to demonstrate a relationship between chronic noise exposure and elevated neruoendocrine and cardiovascular measures (Evans, Hygge, and Bullinger, 1995). Also addressing the impact of aircraft noise on children is the study by the Okinawa Prefectual Government (1999) that found that children exposed to aircraft noise are likely to: “…easily catch cold, have a poor appetite, and take a long time to make friends.”

Even if we believe that the noise/health link has not yet been strongly affirmed, we cannot deny the fact that individuals exposed to repeated aircraft noises experience a poorer quality of life. Asked how noise interfered with their lives, people living near airports reported that they cannot keep their windows opened, sleep, listen to radio and television, talk on the telephone, or converse with others in their homes (Bronzaft, et al., 1998). Similar findings were reported by the Okinawa Prefectual Government (1999). The nearly seventy percent of the people in the Bronzaft et al. study (1998) who answered that they were bothered by aircraft noises could be characterized as suffering from Fatigue, Aggravation, and Anger.

The subjects in the Bronzaft and the Okinawa Prefectual Government studies may not yet manifest observable physical ailments but their quality of life has certainly been diminished by the intrusive airplane noises. One must keep in mind that good health is not simply the absence of a diagnosed physical disorder!

aircraft noise and children's development

One area of long-standing concern for parents has been the effect of noise on their children’s development. It took a growing list of research findings (Bronzaft and McCarthy, 1975; Bronzaft, 1982; Green, Pasternak and Shore,1982; Evans, Bullinger and Hygge, 1998; Haines, Stansfeld, Berglund and Job, 1999) to convince the Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise (FICAN) that noise is detrimental to children’s learning. In its 2000 report FICAN acknowledged that:

“Research on the effects of aircraft noise on children’s learning suggests that aircraft noise can interfere with learning in the following areas: reading, motivation, language and speech acquisition, and memory. The strongest findings to date are in the area of reading, where more than 20 studies  have shown that children in noise impact zones are negatively affected by aircraft.”

Yet, despite this dramatic statement, supervisors of schools lying within the paths of overhead aircraft have to fight for dollars to mitigate the noise at these schools. FICAN’s statement that there is still insufficient research to support the effectiveness of noise mitigation at schools (September 2000, p. 6) probably explains in part why school districts can’t readily receive the necessary dollars to treat their classrooms.

Too many of our nation’s children get double doses of aircraft noise – one at home and one at school. Recognizing that schoolroom mitigation alone will not protect their children from the deleterious effects of noise, parents residing in flight paths have demanded soundproofing for their homes. They know that soundproofing will not afford them the full use of their property but quieter homes should enhance their children’s reading, studying and learning skills. However, obtaining federal dollars for home soundproofing is also a struggle.

Parents who are battling to protect their children from the hazards of aircraft noise, if asked, would most certainly describe bouts of Fatigue, Aggravation and Anger. Feelings of fatigue, aggravation and anger undoubtedly distract these parents from their parental obligations and in the long run their children may suffer. Noise in the home may very well hinder good parent-child relationships.

what is the federalk government doing to ameliorate aircraft impacts?

In the last several congressional sessions, legislation was introduced to reinvigorate the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC), that once existed to curtail the growing noises in our society, but this legislation failed to receive sufficient support. In other words, ONAC lies dormant while noises, especially aviation noise, overwhelm greater numbers of Americans. Some hope that our federal government might once again recognize the danger of noise pollution came in the form of two pieces of recent legislation that called for the examination of the effects of aviation noise on residents subjected to aircraft or helicopter noise.

As part of a major piece of Federal Aviation Administration legislation passed in 2000, a section was included that directed the General Accounting Office to study the adverse effects of aviation noise on people’s health and on children’s learning, to examine whether the measurements employed by the Federal Aviation Administration adequately assess the impacts of noise on residents, and to determine the effectiveness of noise abatement programs at our nation’s airports. A second piece of legislation was passed that called upon the Federal Aviation Administration to ascertain the impact of helicopter noise on nearby residents.

The General Accounting Office decided that the National Academy of Sciences was better suited to undertake an investigation that included examining physiological and psychological effects of noise. In November 2000, President Clinton signed Senate Order 2440 assigning the study to the National Academy of Sciences but with funding not yet appropriated, there is still uncertainty as to whether this study will be carried out. With respect to examining the effects of helicopter noise, the Federal Aviation Administration interpreted its mandate to be the measure of helicopter sounds, not the assessment of noise impacts on people. However, the comments the agency solicited from citizens living near heliports should yield some data on the effects on people. We now await the outcomes of these two federally-funded studies that could heighten the government’s awareness of the dangers of aviation noise pollution

Yet I remember a time over twenty years ago when the federal government didn’t need further enlightenment but rather was well versed on the matter of noise as a health issue. Although the government had understood that additional studies were needed to solidify the noise/health link, it still recognized that there was sufficient evidence to indicate that noise was a real danger. The last two sentences in Noise: A Health Problem (Office of Noise Abatement and Control, 1978) underscores this position.

“It is finally clear that noise is a significant hazard to public health.

Truly, noise is more than just an annoyance. (p.23)

I reflect on these two sentences and then ask myself: “When did we stop caring about noise as a significant health hazard?” More to the point: “Why did we stop caring about noise as a significant health hazard?” My answer to the latter question, as it was stated in an earlier publication (Bronzaft, 1998), centers around the realization that aircraft noise curtailment would impose additional costs on the air transportation industry, an industry with well-funded Washington lobbyists. When the federal government abandoned the Office of Noise Abatement, it gave license to the air transportation industry to ignore the pain and suffering of those who are subjected daily to those overwhelming noises from above. If ignore is to strong a word, then one could simply state that the federal government has permitted the airlines and airplane manufacturers to abate noise at their own slow, deliberate pace. Apparently business profits take precedence over mental and physical well-being!

taking charge and lessening the fatigue, aggravation and anger

International passenger air travel is expected to double in the next ten years and domestic travel should double in the next twenty years. The Federal Aviation Administration projects 36% more flights in the year 2007. Thirty-two of the fifty airports that were surveyed plan to build new runways or extend existing ones (Stenzel, 1996), and smaller airports are expected to enlarge as well. If all these expectations become a reality then the existing aircraft noise problem will worsen despite plans to reduce aircraft noise through new technologies. Even if the government’s own studies, that were discussed above, clearly demonstrate the hazards of aircraft noise, will the government act expeditiously to bring some relief to those on the ground suffering from the steadily mounting offensive noise?

Judging from the government’s overwhelming concern for the heartiness of the air transportation industry these past eighteen years, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the answer is: “Not likely.” Unless, of course, communities outraged by airport expansion, and now emboldened by findings supporting their claims, demand immediate action from the federal government.

The Fatigue, Aggravation and Anger, typifying the residents forced to live with the burgeoning aircraft noises, will fester and worsen as time goes by and nothing is done to improve the situation. The F.A.A. syndrome will be further exacerbated as residents feel they lack the power to change things. Then in time these combined feelings of stress and helplessness could lead to a physiological or psychological breakdown. Those who live in the paths of overhead jets cannot allow themselves to be the helpless pawns of the air transportation industry and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Fighting back allows an individual to regain greater control over his or her life. When an individual battles an oppressor, whether it be a personal enemy, a federal agency or a “big business,” the anger that is seething within the person is redirected to the source of that anger, relieving much of the internal pain that has accompanied that anger. This in turn lessens the stress and frustration, not necessarily causing them to disappear, but keeping them within tolerable levels.

The battle to reduce aircraft noise is a long-term one but small victories along the way will provide the sustenance to maintain the course. One might consider the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision to cut back the number of takeoffs from LaGuardia a small victory or the delay, for at least another year, of the development of a FedEx hub in Greensboro, North Carolina a small victory. There are numerous other examples of citizens halting the expansion of runways or demanding that air flights go over waterways rather than their homes. Whenever a community organization registers a victory, it could be considered a small win for the entire population battling aviation noise and every one in this population should be invigorated to continue their fight.

Furthermore, victories can also be measured by media exposure. Whenever one of the many anti-aircraft noise pollution groups such as US-Citizens Aviation Watch (US-CAW), Aircraft Noise Abatement Group of New York and New Jersey (ANAG), New Jersey Coalition Against Aircraft Noise (NJCAAN), Sane Aviation for Everyone (SAFE), or Helicopter Coalition of New York is quoted in the press, then it could be chalked up as a victory for all those opposing aviation noise.

However, there are still too few participants in the struggle to protect themselves and their children from these invasive and devastating aircraft noises. This also means that far too many people have given in to Fatigue, Aggravation and Anger, making them more vulnerable to potential physiological and psychological harm. Joining one of the above-mentioned groups, and taking some control over your life, as indirectly suggested by Arlene Feldman of the Federal Aviation Administration, is one way to relieve some of the pain associated with the F.A.A. syndrome. Another way, if you are not one who readily joins groups, is to read the key “talking points” listed below on aviation noise abatement policy prepared by the Aircraft Noise Abatement Group of New York and New Jersey, in conjunction with the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. Then forward the talking points to your friends, associates, and public officials.

It should be pointed out that individuals who are not in the path of overhead aircraft today may discover in the near future that a flight path has been moved to their community or a heliport is planned for their neighborhood. Thus, it is hoped that this article would encourage all citizens to work with us in educating our legislators to the dangers of aircraft noise and in urging them to join us in our quest for a quieter sky and a healthier existence.

advocating for a saner aviation noise abatement policy 

  1. In keeping with the latest knowledge on the impacts of aircraft noise on community health and welfare, advocate for 55 dNL as the appropriate level of noise that is considered hazardous to health and well-being, as well as the inclusion of single-events of noise in determining harmful effects of aircraft noise, until more appropriate descriptions are developed.
  2. Require Stage 3 compliance for all airplanes under 75,000 pounds and develop more stringent noise regulations for helicopters. Raise minimum overflight altitudes for airplanes and establish a minimum overflight altitude for helicopters.
  3. Prohibition of overflights over national and state parks.
  4. Noise regulations must be set for military flights as they are for civilian flights.
  5. Fund studies on the effects of aircraft noise on mental and physical health, especially the effects on children’s health, development and learning.
  6. Moratorium on airport capacity expansion until appropriate environmental standards are met.
  7. Urge design and implementation of innovative land use planning around airports, e.g. buffer zones so as to reduce noise impacts.
  8. Nighttime curfews – no departures or arrivals between the hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., except in emergencies.
  9. Passenger tax to be used solely for safety, environmental protection and noise abatement.
  10. Support quieter, cleaner aircraft technology, called Stage IV.


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