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Aircraft noise over Arlington still roaring as studies on quieter skies continue

An airplane overhead, as seen from Gravelly Point (Staff Photo by Jay Westcott)

With the opening of a new concourse at Reagan National Airport, aircraft noise above Arlington remains at a high volume and the region is still studying ways to mitigate the roar.

Resident complaints about noises overhead have been constant for years, due to the flight patterns into National Airport and Pentagon-bound helicopters. Most of complaints are from those who live near the Potomac River, which is the general flight path of most jets arriving and departing the airport.

Last week, at the official celebration for the opening of DCA’s new concourse, Congressman Don Beyer bid “good riddance” to the infamous Gate 35X, assuring residents the new gate won’t exacerbate noise.

“While the new facilities will improve the passenger experience, this will not lead to increased flights or aircraft noise, a frequent concern in the region,” he later said in a tweet. “And I will continue the work to mitigate aircraft noise in our area!”

This year, several separate studies and reports have floated potential solutions to quieting the skies. One study, commissioned by Arlington County and Montgomery County, is ongoing, as the scope shifts from inbound to outbound aircraft.

The joint study advised in April to reroute incoming aircraft so they increasingly fly over the Potomac River instead of “residential and noise-sensitive areas.”

The recommendations were made to the Reagan National Community Noise Working Group (CWG), which operates under the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).

CWG in turn passed them onto the Federal Aviation Administration, though it remains unclear if and when the FAA will act on the suggestions.

The conclusions and process have upset some residents of North Arlington neighborhoods located near the river. During public comments at the Sept. 18 County Board meeting, Chain Bridge Forest resident Alice Doyle said the altered flight paths would cause her and neighbors to bear the brunt of noise.

“To be clear, this means that neighborhoods like Chain Bridge Forest and Arlingwood that sit near the Chain Bridge not only see zero relief from airplane noise, we will now see and hear even more flights overhead,” she said. “The flight disturbance over our homes is almost constant with occasional periods of relief. Under this plan, those much needed moments of noise relief will disappear. ”

She also criticized the county for being “half tuned into the process” and not having enough representatives at the CWG meeting.

County Board member Libby Garvey responded that she understood Doyle’s concerns, but said the report recommends shifting the flight patterns to lessen the burden on Arlington’s more populated areas.

She reiterated in federal issues such as this one, the best county officials can do is to make recommendations.

Now, the joint study has a new focus: departing flights, Arlington County spokeswoman Bryna Helfer tells ARLnow.

“Technical work on new draft procedures for north-flow departures is currently the focus of the study and a community meeting to present those draft procedures will be scheduled before the end of 2021,” she wrote in an email.

In 2018, Arlington and Montgomery counties agreed to split the $250,000 cost of the study, which was officially launched in 2020. For the departing flights study, Arlington paid an additional $50,000, and Montgomery an additional $100,000, Helfer said.

CWG will meet again next Thursday, Oct. 28.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) and the Department of Defense also completed studies this year. The GAO report from September recommends the FAA use easier-to-understand noise metrics.

Those include: “sound exposure level,” the total noise caused by a flight overhead; “number above,” the number of overhead flights surpassing a certain decibel threshold; and “time above,” the amount of time any location is exposed to a certain sound decibel.

Heather Krause, the report’s director, said that the FAA agrees with the conclusions and will report to the GAO in 180 days about implementing these new metrics.

In addition, the study is helping FAA communicate with the public, Krause told ARLnow.

“[This was] to help communities better understand the kind of impacts that they might face when there’s changes made to flights in their area,” she said.

Beyer, meanwhile, also supports GAO’s recommendations.

“These GAO recommendations would lead to improved measurement of aircraft noise and community outreach, and I urge the FAA to implement them as quickly as possible,” he said in a press release on Friday.

In a third report, from July, the DoD committed to trying to reduce helicopter noise by possibly increasing the altitude of routes and tracking noise complaints to find patterns. The department couldn’t make assurances, however.

“The airspace within the [National Capital Region] is one of the busiest and most restrictive in the United States,” the report said. “The military helicopters that operate within the NCR are sharing airspace with three major commercial airports and are required to follow the helicopter routes and altitude restrictions established and enforced by [the] FAA.”

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