Anne Arundel

New flight plans at BWI bring jets lower, cause headaches for neighbors

Robyn and Jim Winder moved into their house on Skipton Drive in Hanover nearly a quarter-century ago.

The retired couple, both now 63, had hoped to stay there for the rest of their lives. But in the past year, the noise has become so unbearable that they have considered moving.


New flight patterns at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport introduced by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2015, part of a nationwide air traffic update intended to save the airlines tens of billions of dollars. The FAA estimates that its $35 billion NextGen air traffic update will save $160 billion in fuel and other costs through 2030.

But NextGen has brought jets thundering lower over the Winders' neighborhood, day and night — exasperating neighbors for whom the airport had never been a problem.


"People say, 'That's what you get for living near an airport,'" Robyn Winder said. "We knew there was an airport, obviously. But we never noticed it, never heard the planes, never had a problem. It was just never an issue until NextGen. Now, it's nonstop hell."

Residents of Point Loma, Calif., near San Diego International Airport, have protested an adjustment that moved flight plans over their neighborhood. The city of Phoenix has sued the FAA over the noise caused by the new flight plans, which it said had "caused the community extreme discomfort with many unable to sleep at night or pursue normal daily activities."

BWI lies in northwestern Anne Arundel County, little more than a mile from the Howard County line. Neighbors in both counties have complained about the noise; airport officials say complaints have more than doubled since the flight paths changed.

Howard County officials met with FAA representatives in July to air their concerns. They planned a follow-up call for last week and a meeting on Monday, but the FAA has postponed them until October, at the earliest.

"We are continuing to work with [the Maryland Aviation Administration] and Howard County officials regarding residents' noise concerns," FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac said. "We won't be providing anyone for an interview currently."

Upon hearing Salac's statement, Robyn Winder laughed out loud.

"Continuing to?" she asked. "That would be news, because they haven't."

Howard County Councilman Jon Weinstein, who organized the July meeting with the FAA, said it was productive. But he was surprised at how little the federal officials knew about residents' concerns.


County officials said the FAA initially blamed the noise on a runway renovation at BWI. But the noise continues to trouble residents long after that project wrapped up.

"Much to my disappointment, we're not much further along than just registering our complaints with them," Weinstein said. "I will say the 'working with' part is not apparent to us at this stage.

"Since we had that meeting in July, we have not had any substantive communication with them except for trying to schedule — and then canceling — a meeting."

Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman said, "It's safe to say we're frustrated."

The Howard County Council sent a letter to FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta in May detailing its efforts for more than a year to get the agency to focus on the community's concerns.

"To date, our requests to your office for a resolution have not received an adequate response," the council wrote. "In fact, your most recent letter referenced the Potomac River, suggesting your office did not fully research this issue to understand our community concerns but rather may have copied content from another letter regarding issues associated with Reagan Washington-National Airport."


The Maryland Aviation Administration found that the NextGen flight plans violate both the airport's Noise Compatibility Program and the state's Noise Abatement Plan. It relayed both findings to the FAA in an October 2015 letter.

The FAA had said NextGen at BWI would involve no changes below 3,000 feet. The MAA's letter — and a slew of angry residents — contradicted that assertion.

"To describe NextGen as having no impact below 3,000 feet ... then to implement something entirely different, where planes fly directly over 1,500 new residential units at an elevation of less than 2,000 feet, is scandalous," Drew Roth, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association, wrote in an online forum. "It is fraudulent. It is dishonest."

Noise complaints at BWI have more than doubled in the past two years, from 835 in 2014 to more than 1,800 last year.

Lynn Campbell has lived in Severn, a few miles from the airport, for some three decades. It was not until March 2015 that airplane noise began to affect her neighborhood's quality of life, she said.

Now, she said, "we've got the hot line for the noise complaints about BWI on speed dial."


"It actually shakes the house," Campbell said. "I have some plates hanging on the walls and they'll rattle."

Bob Stelmaszek, a former air traffic controller who worked at BWI in the 1970s, has lived in his home in Millersville for more than 30 years.

These days, he said, if he is outside and a plane flies overhead, "you have to stop your conversation. It gets pretty annoying after a while."

Kittleman said he is doing what he can to stop the noise. "Unfortunately, our hands are somewhat tied if we can't get the FAA to meet with us," he said.

Jeffrey Starin, an environmental activist based in New York, tracks news reports of noise complaints across the nation on his website, He says neighbors who are bothered by the noise might have only one option: move away.

"Moving could drive property values down, which would send an important message to city officials," he said. "However, most people don't have that option, and they could contact their elected officials to put pressure on Washington to pass comprehensive and substantive environmental reform legislation. ... This is not something that's going to be resolved relatively soon."


Because the FAA does not answer to local governments, Starin said, congressional action would be required to alter NextGen.

The NextGen updates are projected to save $9.4 billion in fuel costs, $30.2 billion in crew and maintenance costs, and $125 million in additional flights, according to the FAA's website. NextGen is also expected to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, save time and make flights safer.

Southwest Airlines, which operates about 70 percent of the flights into and out of BWI, did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

The planes' engines not only keep Sandy Cook, 48, and her family up all night in their home on Hanover Crossing Road in Hanover, the racket rattles the walls.

"You can touch the wall and feel the vibration," she said.

Trying to get to sleep between planes is futile, Cook said. Instead, she's drinking more caffeine to get through the workday and worrying about the health effects of not sleeping properly for more than a year.


"We're considering moving," Cook said. "The quality of life has been shattered."

She feels compelled to explain to skeptics that her family did not sign up for the noise just by living near the airport.

"When you move into this area, the MAA has noise maps and noise zones, and you don't move into those noise zones," Cook said. "You should feel OK buying outside the noise zones."

When Barbara Deckert and her husband were considering moving to Claire Drive, three miles from the airport, in 1984, they parked their car in front of the property and listened for planes overhead. At the time, Deckert says, there was no problem.

NextGen has ruined "the ordinary pleasure of sitting in your backyard and listening to the birds and the trees," Deckert said. "Instead, we've got aircraft flying over our head at 107 decibels."

Their attic is heavily insulated and the windows are triple-glazed. She says it makes no difference.


"The noise still is far worse than it used to be," she said. "This NextGen system ... has been a huge detriment to the quality of human life to us little ants on the ground."

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.