The Massachusetts Port Authority says it is sympathetic to local residents’ complaints about aircraft noise, and it is trying to schedule a meeting with Federal Aviation Administration officials to prove it.
“We are in the process of organizing a meeting with the FAA … to discuss your noise issues,” Massport spokesman Mike Vatalaro told members of the Hanscom Field Advisory Commission (HFAC) on March 16. “So it’s not like these noise complaints don’t go unheard. You have very friendly Massport advocates here to try to help you out.”
An alliance would be significant, since Massport claims the federal agency alone has the authority to regulate aircraft noise.
Surprisingly, HFAC is not on the invitation list, despite HFAC members, along with former Massport spokesman, Anthony Gallagher, and State Representative Sheila Harrington of Groton having earlier this year proposed that FAA meet with HFAC to discuss local air noise concerns.
Chair Christopher Eliot observed during the March HFAC meeting, “From all that I’ve learned, the FAA has the sole authority to enforce flight behavior and Massport cannot take any action in response to community complaints.” However, Eliot also cautioned, “It also seems to me that the FAA does not take sufficient action in response to complaints. I think the FAA is not properly balancing the needs of aviation with the needs of the community.”
Among other issues, Eliot is referring to complaints that have repeatedly been brought before HFAC for nearly two decades from residents of Ayer and Groton, alleging aggressive, harassing, and at times unsafe flying behavior over their neighborhoods and towns by some pilots from flight schools based at Hanscom Field.
During the past year, HFAC members have also frequently discussed non-legislative means of addressing community air noise concerns which would not constitute legal enforcement activities. Most have centered on “closing the feedback loop”; that is, making local pilots aware of the impact their flight activity has on communities.
Massport already has a feedback loop in place for nighttime flight operations. Amber Goodspeed, Massport airport administrative manager for Hanscom Field, has told HFAC that letters are sent to aircraft operators/owners to share noise complaints received about flight operations between the hours of 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. In addition, since 1980, Massport has assessed an extra airfield use fee to discourage nighttime flights which disrupt the sleep of airfield neighborhood residents (that revenue goes into Massport’s general fund).
However, night flights typically make up only about 2% of all flights at Hanscom Field. For example, in pre-pandemic 2019, monthly nighttime flight operations averaged 206, while monthly daytime flight operations averaged 10,723. Monthly daytime practice flights (repetitive touch-and-go, pattern work, and other types of training involving repeated circling of airfield neighborhoods) averaged 3,717.
With very few exceptions, Massport has no systematic and routine process in place for informing pilots about specific noise complaints generated by their aircraft during daytime hours.
It does meet quarterly with local flight schools to remind them that daytime practice sessions directly over the historic Hartwell Tavern in Minuteman National Park are discouraged, so visitors can hear ranger talks and enjoy the park without distraction. But there is no similar system in place to discuss flight school practice sessions over residential neighborhoods and share feedback about residents’ air noise complaints with flight school owners and pilots.
Residents have repeatedly expressed frustration during HFAC meetings over Massport’s seeming inability or unwillingness to close this feedback loop for daytime flights. This is partly due to the increasing access of members of the public to various free or low-cost flight-tracking apps, such as FlightAware.com, Flightrader24.com, and Airnoise.io. The apps allow residents to instantaneously identify the N-number, registered owner, altitude, position, flight track, and flight history of specific aircraft creating noise disturbances, as well as recognize patterns of local flight school aircraft repetitively circling above neighborhoods.
Goodspeed has explained at past HFAC meetings that the airport’s noise complaint software is not configured to provide equivalent information, or to recognize multiple noise complaints generated by a specific aircraft or even type of aircraft (e.g., jet vs prop plane vs helicopter).
Asked to explain the purpose of the Massport noise complaint system during the March HFAC meeting, Vatalaro summed up, “I think it’s an avenue for the community to have a say, and speak if they have a noise concern, if it becomes a pattern.”
Note: the FAA is inviting public comments and suggestions about its research into air noise impacts on airfield communities until April 14.
Both the HFAC Chair and Bedford Select Board have already submitted letters regarding local community air noise concerns. To read their comments or submit your own, please click here: https://www.regulations.gov/document/FAA-2021-0037-0001
To see why the FAA wants your comments on air noise, read about these surprising results of the latest FAA Neighborhood Environmental Survey on how people now perceive aircraft noise: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/airplane-noise-study/2021/03/26/533a0f5e-8c0e-11eb-a6bd-0eb91c03305a_story.html