WASHINGTON -- When sweeping aviation-noise legislation passed in the closing hours of the 101st Congress, citizen activists such as Tom Holland of Linthicum saw hope for residents living under the flight paths of a busy airport.
"It's not going to be perfect, but it's a step forward," said Holland, who lobbied for the legislation on behalf of the BWI Neighbors Committee, which represents 11 communities surrounding Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "We've needed this kind of national policy for years . . . and we fought for it for a long time."
While some Baltimore area groups hope their battle for quieter skies may finally be over, other airport-noise activists are not so sure -- and are anxiously awaiting U.S. Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner's July 1 release of provisions to enforce the first national aviation-noise policy.
Called the most far-reaching aviation legislation since airline deregulation, the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990 mandated, among other provisions, a noise policy that would gradually eliminate so-called Stage 2 aircraft -- the oldest, noisiest planes in the skies.
Specifically, the bill requires the Department of Transportation to establish a national noise policy that would phase out 85 percent of noisy Stage 2 planes in this country by July 1, 1999. Total changeover to a Stage 3 fleet would take effect on Jan. 1, 2004.
A preliminary timetable for retirement of Stage 2 aircraft was released by the Department of Transportation in February, giving airlines a variety of options to bring them into compliance with the federal law -- a process that will cost the airline industry an estimated $90 billion.
This was all good news to folks like Tom Holland of the Linthicum-Shipley Improvement Association and Bob Stelmaszek, technical adviser to the Greater Severna Park Council, who had fought hard for national phase-out of the noisiest planes.
But many airport-noise activists were displeased with some of those proposed rules, among them Rep. Thomas McMillen of Maryland, who thought the plan Skinner had in mind would defeat the intent of the national policy.
Particularly offensive was one provision allowing airlines unable to meet a deadline for phase-out to buy "operating rights" from an airline that has exceeded these noise-reduction requirements -- potentially allowing noisy planes to remain in use longer in some airports than in others.
"It is conceivable that if distant operators are permitted to transfer noise rights', there will be some airports that will not receive any significant noise relief from this new National Noise Policy," wrote McMillen, D-4th, in a letter and sent last month to Secretary Skinner.
"In fact, some areas may become more severely impacted because of this policy," wrote McMillen in his letter, which was co-signed by 40 members of the House, including House Transportation and Public Works Chairman Robert A. Roe, D-N.J., and Maryland Reps. Steny Hoyer, D-5th; Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd; and Constance A. Morella, R-8th.
Another issue is the interpretation of a passage in the National Noise Act which, activists believe, allows localities hard-hit by noise pollution the right to speed-up the national Stage 2 phase-out in their own jurisdictions.
No such meaning, however, was gleaned by the Bush administration, the airline industry, and even by certain members of Congress who helped draft the bill.
"You don't have to be a Supreme Court justice to see the statute is very clear," said Patrick Russell, attorney for the Minneapolis-based National Airport Watch Group, which represents 75 metropolitan areas across the country, including Baltimore-Washington. "But if we have to, we'll take it to the Supreme Court -- because the law is behind us."
Maintaining that permission is granted by the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, officials in Los Angeles, Chicago and the New York metropolitan area are pushing proposals to require early phase-out of Stage 2 aircraft in their areas. Bills now before the New York and New Jersey state legislatures also call for phase-out of Stage 2 planes by the end of 1996 -- fully seven years ahead of the national schedule.
The FAA has opposed the state legislation and threatened the states with lawsuits and loss of federal funds if they're passed and enforced.
Industry analysts are watching the developing storm with interest -- and see the courts as the ultimate arbiters of federal and state jurisdiction in the issue.
"People are trying this elsewhere, most recently in Los Angeles, but the [New York and] New Jersey proposals are significantly more restrictive . . . they're ludicrous," said Roger B. Cohen in the governmental affairs office of the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents the nation's airlines. "Both plans conflict with the national noise policy."
While some activists such as McMillen say they are awaiting Skinner's release of the July 1 rules before determining a plan of action, others are gearing up for what could be a fight every step of the way.
In the Baltimore area, some activists are just glad that a national solution has been reached -- although the loudest planes will still be around for many more years.
"It's great to know we'll be rid of the Stage 2 planes someday . . . but we could have immediate relief right now if the airports would just use do certain things," said Bob Stelmaszek, a licensed commercial pilot from Severna Park who spent 14 years as an air traffic controller.
"Keeping the planes higher, making use of mandatory crossing altitudes, using a rotational runway system, revising arrival and departure paths -- all of these could help us long before the national phase-out," he said. "And we'll keep pushing BWI until they do it."