Citizens group annual report says FAA 'disowns responsibility' for BWI noise

The Federal Aviation Administration “essentially disowns responsibility” for noise and disruption caused by its new air-traffic control system, according to an annual report released last week by a citizen group created to address the problem.

“Without a major change in federal legislation, or a successful lawsuit that creates mandatory incentives for the FAA to act to dramatically mitigate the situation, the [roundtable] will fail in its goal,” concludes the report, compiled by the DC Metroplex BWI Community Roundtable.

Howard County residents have complained of increased noise and jet traffic since 2014, when the FAA installed its new NextGen system at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. The GPS-based system was designed to increase safety and efficiency in air travel, partly by consolidating flight paths at lower altitudes and on more frequent schedules.

The new flight paths theoretically reduce the number of people exposed to jet noise, but those who live beneath the tracks say they hear it almost constantly.

“The superhighway in the sky that’s been created by the FAA is basically almost right in front of my house,” said Paul Verchinski, a roundtable member whose Columbia home is 8.4 miles from BWI. “I can watch the planes go, one after the other, from 5 a.m. until after midnight. I have lived in my house since 1973, and before this I did not even notice that there was an airport around here.”

The noise issue is not unique to Maryland. In 2015, residents in Phoenix sued the FAA over new flight patterns and won, forcing the agency to revert to its old flight paths after a federal judge ruled that the NextGen changes there were “capricious and arbitrary.” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan last fall directed state Attorney General Brian Frosh to file a similar lawsuit.

“Governor Hogan has made it extremely clear that the new flight patterns implemented by the previous state and federal administrations are completely unacceptable and causing considerable damage to countless Marylanders,” said Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Frosh’s office announced in October that it had hired the law firm that won the suit in Phoenix. The suit is proceeding, but has no specific timeline, said Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Frosh.

Howard County’s Office of Law last year considered taking similar action. Nothing has been filed, but county officials “will continue to explore and pursue legal remedies to the situation,” according to Lewis Taylor, the senior assistant county solicitor.

On Tuesday, the county government issued a statement discrediting a draft environmental assessment on BWI prepared by the Maryland Aviation Administration for the FAA on the basis of out-of-date data.

In comments submitted to the MAA, county officials noted that “the vast majority of noise data underlying the draft EA is from before 2015. The flight procedure changes, including those that began to be flown in 2016, have resulted in highly controversial noise impacts.”

The council will push for a full environmental impact study, Council Chairperson Mary Kay Sigaty said in a statement.

The BWI roundtable group was created last year at the request of the FAA to act as a clearinghouse for noise complaints and other concerns. Members have met monthly with officials from the FAA and the Maryland Aviation Administration, each time giving residents the opportunity to paint a clear picture of the effects of the noise.

“They talk about their sorry predicament, the substantial negative impact on their health and mental well-being, their homes, the value of their single largest personal investment and on their communities,” the report says. “The harm is real and Maryland residents are bearing this harm now.”

The group implored the FAA to revert to its previous flight patterns or find other ways to scatter plane routes to mitigate noise concerns. FAA officials agreed to consider changes to departure routes from BWI, but have so far not addressed concerns related to altitude or increased traffic.

The FAA is expected to present a detailed plan for those departure changes at the roundtable’s April meeting. The agency said in a statement it is “committed to working with the DC Metroplex BWI Community Roundtable and will fully and fairly consider any formal Community Roundtable-endorsed changes.”

Roundtable members aren’t convinced. The ongoing stalemate led the group to conclude in its annual report that its own existence is “a largely unsatisfactory approach” to deal with the issue.

“I believe we have gotten to the point where we have done as much as we can do,” Verchinski said. “We have talked with the FAA and frankly they don’t negotiate in good faith.”

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