Loopholes in a new federal airport noise law could allow airlines toignore a schedule for phasing out noisy, older-model airplanes, community activists and congressional critics say.
But the nation's air carriers say the law must be flexible or the cost of compliance will force many financially strapped airlines out of business.
The two sides came together this week in Alexandria, Va., when the Federal Aviation Administration held two days of hearings on implementing the law, which was passed by Congress in October over objections from community groups nationwide.
"If Baltimore-Washington International Airport is going to suffer more noise pollution so airlinescan have more flexibility, then it mitigates the intent of the bill," said Representative Tom McMillen, D-4th. "The problem is that theseare loopholes you can fly a noisy plane through."
The law, which for the first time puts the FAA in charge of regulating noise, requires airlines to phase out all Stage 2 aircraft by Dec. 31, 1999. But if an airline has reached 85 percent compliance by that date, it can ask for an extension until 2003.
Critics, who support a federal noise policy, say the law undermines local control over airports in setting regulations as to what types of airplanes can take off and land.
The law mandates that any airport restrictions on Stage 3 aircraft-- newer and generally quieter planes -- must either be approved by the secretary of transportation or must have unanimous consent of theairlines.
Stage 2 restrictions imposed by airports must go through a public review process, but do not need approval from the FAA.
The FAA must come up with a schedule for airlines to eliminate Stage 2 aircraft. The FAA could require every airline to reduce the number of Stage 2 jets in their fleet by up to 50 percent by 1996.
The plan the FAA is studying would allow an airline that has exceeded noise-reduction goals to "sell" or "transfer" the additional operating rights to other airlines. For example, if 70 percent of one airline's fleet was Stage 3, another airline with only 30 percent Stage 3 planes could buy the additional 20 percent.
Airlines argue that national noise levels would still be reduced the proscribed amount, even if certain airlines can't meet the requirements along the way.
Robert Aaronson, president of the Air Transport Association, which representsall major U.S. airlines, argued that since the law is flexible in allowing extensions for phasing out Stage 2 aircraft beyond the 1999 deadline, there is no reason it can't be flexible along the way.
"This reveals congressional recognition that all carriers may not be able to march in lock step to the same date," he said.
"We're not only concerned with noise," Aaronson said. "If the noise law is so stringent that it drives half of the airlines out of the market, that raises some very significant public policy concerns."
But McMillen testified that the proposal would undermine the law. He said that while overall noise levels in the nation would go down, noise at individualairports could go up.
"Because it is common for certain carriers to frequent a given airport or region, the theory that reducing the overall number of Stage 2 aircraft nationwide is the same as reducing all fleets by a predetermined percentage is ill-conceived.
"It is quite possible that distant carriers will engage in this system and the outcome will be to create large variations in the level ofnoise experienced from airport to airport. . . . The win-win situation as explained in this rule is truly only a win for the airline industry."
Airlines also want the FAA rather than local airports to have greater control on Stage 2 restrictions.
Community groups and McMillen urged the FAA to leave the law alone. "My constituents want to maintain local authority in this area," he said.
Officials from BWI attended the hearings but did not testify. They said they have not formed an opinion on the proposed regulations. The Maryland Aviation Administration supports the law and the deadline for phasing out Stage 2 aircraft, but is concerned that putting the FAA in control of noise could hamper its own noise reduction efforts.
The FAA is scheduled to have two more hearings on the regulations, in Chicago and Seattle. Itmust issue rules on national noise restrictions by July 1.