Howard County's Office of Law has begun early discussions to consider taking legal action against the Federal Aviation Administration over flight patterns that have airplanes flying at lower altitudes over neighborhoods in the county.
Following months of frustrations and stalled talks with federal officials, local lawmakers unanimously gave the county authority to take legal action against the FAA's NextGen, a $40 billion nationwide overhaul designed to modernize air traffic control.
The system, which the FAA said boosts efficiency and will save $160 billion through 2030 in fuel, maintenance and other costs, has riled communities near Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport over the last two years, whose residents have complained about excessive jet noise.
No formal lawsuit is waiting in the wings, but the county's legal staff are exploring what options are available.
"There's a lot of groundwork to be done," said County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein. "We'd like the FAA to consider our request to return flight patterns to their previous altitude."
Residents from Anne Arundel and Howard counties say the planes are flying closer, louder and lower than ever before. In some cases, airplane noise is cropping up in places where it did not exist before, residents said.
Weinstein and Councilman Calvin Ball, both Democrats, pushed for the move after talks with the FAA stalled; they said the agency has not been responsive. After a year of back and forth, Howard County officials, including Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, pressed the FAA to address "unacceptable" noise levels in July.
At the request of the FAA and in response to complaints from residents, the Maryland Aviation Administration plans to create a 24-member community roundtable that would recommend changes to airline arrival and departure procedures. The formal review process is part of the federal agency's community input procedures.
The group, which would include 17 voting members from the community and four non-voting members from state and federal agencies, could begin work as early as this spring, according to Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for BWI.
The FAA will receive recommendations from the group, but no timeline has been set so far, Dean said.
Ellen Flaherty, a 54-year-old Columbia resident, said that while she is optimistic that the MAA is working with the community, it's unclear what new information the roundtable will deliver.
"I'm not sure how this information will empower [the MAA] to move forward. What will be different now than what information they already have?" Flaherty said.
Still, Flaherty welcomes any progress. Airplane noise became a problem last February in her Columbia neighborhood where she has lived for seven years.
The FAA has been hit with lawsuits across the country, including cities like Culvert City, Calif., and Phoenix, Ariz. At BWI airport, noise complaints have jumped dramatically following the rollout of NextGen, according to data from the airport.
Weinstein and other local officials are considering taking joint legal against the FAA with other local jurisdictions. The success of pending lawsuits could determine what options the county pursues, Weinstein said.
Spokeswoman Arlene Salak said the FAA "cannot comment on any pending litigation."