WASHINGTON - Local residents who want quieter airplanes flying in and out of BWI got a chance to complain to a national audience yesterday, when they testified before a congressional committee trying to draft legislation for a noise abatement plan.
From Queens, N.Y., to Orange County, Calif., to Linthicum and Severna Park, they came to tell the House Subcommittee on Aviation of problems ranging from litigation to noise-abatement agreements to dealing with the Federal Aviation Administration.
What the committee heard was that people all over the country are bothered by airport noise. "They see that it is a universal problem," said County Councilman Theodore Sophocleus, a candidate for County Executive. "A national plan is the only way to go."
Subcommittee Chairman James L. Oberstar, D-Minnesota, said he wants to draft national noise-abatement legislation within two years. "We have begun the national dialogue," he said.
"People just do not know where to turn for help," U.S. Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th, said during testimony. "As it currently stands, they have to take the airport's assurances that noise abatement measures are effective or they can go to the FAA, whose main mission is to fly planes, not abate noise."
Most people testifying at the hearing on Capitol Hill called for a deadline for phasing in Stage 3 airplanes, which are the only type of aircraft now being built. Older model Stage 2 airplanes, which make up the bulk of the U.S. fleet, are far noisier.
"Pursuit of noise mitigation should not degenerate into a local race for Stage 3 aircraft," Ken Pippin, vice president of the BWI Neighbors Committee, said in calling for a national deadline for such a phase-in. He and others said that if airports mandate Stage 3 airplanes on a piece-meal basis, it will force more Stage 2 planes on other airports.
Committee members said they may require the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct full environmental impact studies whenever an airport or the FAA wants to change a take-off or landing route.
The FAA recently allowed BWI to change a takeoff route, sending some westbound jet aircraft over Elmhurst for the first time. The airport said the change results in less noise for people living in Glen Burnie, but residents complain the airport is spreading noise around to people who never were affected before.
Currently, EIS reports -- which mandate a public hearing -- are only required for major expansion or construction projects.
"Changing a flight track is many months in the making," Congressman Oberstar said. "They do not happen overnight. There is no reason that the process can't be subject to another level of review by the public."
McMillen also proposed an ombudsman to handle outside evaluation of noise complaints.
He and others who testified said individual airports are insensitive to their neighbors and that the FAA is only mandated to promote commerce with regard to safety.
"The FAA has never been to a single airport to evaluate noise-abatement measures," McMillen said. "I am incredulous to this fact."
Not everyone was in full support of a national noise abatement plan, however. Jan Mittermeier, airport manager for John Wayne Airport in Orange County, said she is worried that legislation will overrule local agreements.
John Wayne is about half the size of BWI and has few jet flights, all national, using the airport. It also only accepts Stage 3 aircraft, which is part of an agreement with local residents.
"The new policy should grandfather in these existing contracts," Mittermeier said, "so we have protection against more and more stringent requirements."
Dennis Stevens, president of the Airport Coordinating Team, a 300-member BWI watchdog group, also said he has reservations about a national policy, especially if that will include a federal review board -- as has been mentioned as a possibility.
"The communities around BWI have had a hard-enough time attempting to get state officials to implement meaningful noise abatement," he said. "We don't need the added burden of having to deal with a federal board and possibly the federal courts."