Airplanes crash into my quiet life
My peace and serenity have been taken from me. Nine years ago I bought a home in a quiet neighborhood of Oakland, California. I then spent over two and half years designing and building my “dream house.” I am very proud of what I created, and I love being here. But, recently, the FAA took the quiet life from me and my neighborhood.
For the past couple of years the FAA has been rolling out “NextGen”, the “Next Generation” air traffic control system. I won’t bother going into the details of NextGen – it is a very complicated set of changes, and is well documented elsewhere. Suffice it to say that NextGen has had noise impacts in every city where there is a major air traffic hub. The City of Phoenix, Arizona, was the first to sue the FAA over NextGen noise. Other citizens and cities have sued or threatened lawsuits. Congress-people are introducing bills to stop the changes and require the FAA to respond to complaints. Groups are organizing all over the country. The reason is that NextGen has changed flight patterns around airports, causing new routing of airplanes, and concentrating air traffic in narrow bands of high noise. Two of those bands go over my home.
The relationship between airports and communities
Since the start of commercial aviation, airports and communities have been involved in a conversation. Depending on where and when an airport was built, it may have been sited well away from the city (e.g. the new Denver International Airport), or, it may have been placed close in to facilitate easy access - the airport in Phoenix is downtown.Many airports are built on the edges of metropolitan areas.
But cities grow and change, and airports grow and change as well. Airports that were once on the edges of town may find themselves engulfed by the cities they serve, surrounded by commercial or residential areas that weren’t there when the planners first chose the site.
During the 90 years since its founding, Oakland airport and the community have been having a conversation about noise and air traffic impacts. Sometimes it has been explicit: When neighborhoods were excessively impacted, the airport met with the communities and attempted to accommodate their needs. The airport has worked to be a good citizen, serving the needs of Oakland and the region.
The invisible conversation
At the same time there has been an invisible “conversation” going on. Businesses that serve or rely on aviation, and other forms of transportation, have located near the airport. Real estate prices in these loud areas are generally low, so operations such as warehouses and storage units, that depend on low real estate costs, find the area around the airport to be attractive.
Some people want to live near the airport. They may work for airlines, aviation support companies, or the airport itself. They choose to accept noise in exchange for proximity. Frequent travelers may also make this choice, and there are hotels that cater to travelers by being as close to the airport as possible. Some people might live near the airport because they don’t mind the noise and choose lower real-estate costs over quiet. Finally, of course, there are far too many people who are forced to live in uncomfortable and unpleasant places due to financial hardship.
Others choose to live away from transit, airports, city centers, and other sources of disturbance. Such choices may mean long, difficult commutes; poor access to restaurants, shopping and entertainment.; they may face high real estate costs and property taxes. Some people are willing to go deeply into debt to purchase homes where there is peace and quiet.
This is not limited to the area around the airport. Any place in the metropolitan area that airplane noise can be heard will experience this kind of natural, organic separation. Residents self-sort by the priority they place on silence vs. other needs. Over years, people vote with their dollars and their feet to be closer to, or farther from, noisy locations. They also vote in elections for representatives that support their needs and desires. City planners establish zoning laws that enforce the decades old patterns created by peoples' choices of buying and selling, building and demolishing. These zoning regulations create the framework of stability that give residents and businesses the confidence to invest in the community.
This is not novel to Oakland. It happens everywhere in America. Through generations of explicit and implicit negotiation, a city falls into a certain shape.
The FAA upsets the apple cart
Then, suddenly, without any notice or conversation, the FAA upended the apple cart - showing no consideration for the delicate balance of quiet and noise worked out over the years. Formerly airplanes flight paths were spread out over a broad area. The NextGen system is now concentrating air traffic in narrow bands. Many of these fly above areas that used to be quiet - the very places where the most noise-sensitive individuals have settled.
As for myself, I have sacrificed proximity to transit, recreation, and city services. I have sacrificed time, effort, and energy. And I have sacrificed money. All because I place a high priority on peace and quiet. I would love to live downtown, with all it has to offer. But I can’t stand the noise! So, I live in Montclair where it is quiet – where it was quiet.
The FAA's mistaken mission
How could this possibly happen? Our communities have had an ongoing relationship with our airports. How can the FAA ignore that? I believe the answer is in their mission statement, which reads:
Our continuing mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.Period. Therein lies the root of the problem. NextGen achieves this mission. NextGen makes the aerospace system safer and more efficient. Mission accomplished. The problem is that while the FAA has succeeded in their mission, it was the wrong mission.
I propose that the first step in stopping the noise problems created by NextGen is to change the mission statement of the FAA. I believe that the FAA’s mission statement should proudly proclaim:
Our continuing mission is to create and maintain an aerospace system that best serves the people of the United States.If this had been the mission of the FAA, NextGen would have been designed very differently. The needs, comfort, and safety of people on the ground would have been every bit as important as the safety and efficiency of the system in the air.
The FAA is no doubt reluctant to meet with us, and take our needs into consideration, because NextGen is fulfilling their mission. Changing their mission to reflect the needs of the people will change the whole conversation.
The mission statement that I propose will not be alien to the FAA. Their “Vision Statement” says,
We strive to reach the next level of safety, efficiency, environmental responsibility and global leadership. We are accountable to the American public and our stakeholders.Somehow that vision of accountability to the American public has been overlooked. The mission overran the vision.
How do we move forward?
We need to remind the FAA that we are their ultimate customers, and we are the arbiters of their success or failure. They should be reminded every day by putting this into their mission statement. The Federal Aviation Administration exists for the benefit of the American people, not for the benefit of abstract notions of safety and efficiency. Change the mission statement and NextGen will naturally change to serve the new mission – one that enhances the lives of all Americans, in the air and on the ground.