Despite overwhelming support from the DC Metroplex BWI Community Roundtable, a state bill designed to create a commission to study the health effects of the airport on the surrounding community failed to pass the General Assembly during this year’s session.
Ever since the 2015 implementation of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Next Generation Air Transportation System, airplane noise has been an issue in Anne Arundel, Howard and Baltimore counties, said Mary Reese, of the BWI Roundtable, a liaison group between BWI Marshall Airport and the surrounding community.
When the Next Generation standards were established at airports across the country, the goal was to cut down on delays and carbon emissions. But it also resulted in planes flying closer to the ground, generating noise that bothers neighborhoods surrounding airports. In 2021, there were more than half a million complaints about airplane noise from BWI in the region, according to the Maryland Aviation Administration.
Despite these mounting concerns, the bill to create the commission and study the health effects of the low-flying planes failed to get out of committee because of concerns from legislators that such a commission likely wouldn’t influence a national entity like FAA.
When Roundtable chair Debbie MacDonald sent a letter to Maryland Aviation Adminstration Executive Director Ricky Smith in February urging the agency to support the commission, he replied in an email that the agency generally avoids taking a position on legislation.
But the organization changed its tune in early March when it submitted a letter of testimony to the legislature opposing the bill, saying, in part, the BWI Roundtable already brings concerns of the community to the airport, making a commission unnecessary. It also cited the same reasons legislators mentioned: the FAA is hard to influence.
But Reese said that is precisely why the Roundtable and the community needed the commission.
“The decisions with our airport and what is happening, they’re really being made in a bubble,” Reese said. “We’re going to keep pushing for an organization of sorts for transparency and data to be looked at out from under the thumb of the MAA.”
What the BWI Roundtable is doing now
One thing Reese said gives her hope is that Anne Arundel and Howard counties each contributed about $50,000 for a contract with the company ABCx2 to create a regional virtual noise monitoring system that will generate monthly reports. Reese said Baltimore County has not gotten involved yet.
The goal is to have the reports available to the public by mid-summer. Reese said the examination will include health impacts of the noise and include research previously completed on the airport as well as ongoing studies soon to be released including one being conducted now by Dr. Zafar Zafari and doctoral candidate Jeong-eun Park at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.
That research, the Study on the Health Effects of Air Traffic Noise, was funded by $100,000 from MDOT, even though a bill to create and fund the study was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan two years ago due to financial concerns. Zafari and Reese said that, while they understand research and data alone may not influence the FAA, they hope it can influence residents, legislators and, perhaps if other states complete similar studies, encourage the FAA to open a conversation about changing flight patterns to help ease the effects.
Zafari said he’s already seeing other states starting to work on this issue including around airports in Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle. Before working on the BWI study, Zafari produced a similar study in Queens, New York, more focused on financial impacts of Next Generation, after which flight density was hugely improved during nighttime hours in the area, he said. Zafari and Park’s BWI study will be released in June.
“We tried to project the long term 20- or 50-year direct costs, indirect costs and also losses of health in terms of quality of life,” Zafari said. “In terms of the disease burden, our model is quantifying the impact of aircraft noise on cardiovascular diseases, anxiety [and] depression.”
While the study hasn’t been completed yet, Zafari said it preliminary appears that the Next Generation flight patterns have contributed to health issues and may even be costly for individuals and insurance companies seeking medical care to combat the affects.
“We believe these reports are going to be incredibly beneficial for communities,” Reese said. “What we have learned in the over five years of our work as the Roundtable is that what’s happening in communities just isn’t clearly understood and it’s certainly not understood by those who have the political power to make the necessary changes.”
MAA spokesperson Jonathan Dean said the organization already monitors noise near the airport and enhanced the monitoring in 2019 with a $1.7 million investment in 24 noise monitoring stations, three portable monitors and advanced analysis technology.
But Reese said MAA’s monitoring doesn’t cover certain areas affected by the noise and doesn’t provide the metrics the Roundtable feels would be helpful, which is why the Roundtable plans to create its own system for monitoring and reporting the affects.
Reese, an Annapolis resident, said part of what motivates her to keep searching for a solution to the aircraft noise is listening to people affected by it while also living close enough to the airport to hear the planes.
“The public comes to our meetings,” Reese said. “We hear their compelling stories. They break down in tears.”
Reese said she’s heard stories about negative health affects on both adults and children as well as interpersonal issues created by the noise. Some want to move but don’t know where they can go nearby that might be affordable and unaffected by the noise. Others simply don’t want to leave their neighborhoods they know so well.
Maryland Policy & Politics
“Their home is their community,” Zafari said. “You can’t ask them to leave. That also has some detrimental health affects.”
Maryland Aviation Administration stands by decision to oppose commission bill
MAA spokesperson Jonathan Dean, said the agency is already taking extensive measures to mitigate noise issues, another reason cited in the MAA’s letter to the legislature opposing the bill to create a commission.
BWI has participated is FAA’s voluntary noise compatibility program — a program that supplies sound insulation for affected residents and schools — for about 40 years, Dean said, adding that more than 700 people and four schools near the airport have taken advantage of the program, most of which are in Anne Arundel County. He said the program is something the MAA is continuing to improve.
Dean also said the FAA is currently reviewing revised flight procedures near BWI “that should help address local concerns.”
Some of those revised procedures come from recommendations from the Roundtable, but Reese said they are small tweaks and still don’t address the larger problem of low-flying planes.
Reese said she thinks the best way to progress would be having the FAA come to individual airports to change the flight patterns based on the needs of the residents.
“The FAA is not insurmountable,” she said. “You’re going to have to chip away piece by piece and get what you can every legislative session and you just keep working for incremental change.”