How to Get Rid of Noisy Airplanes and Still Get There on Time

Take Back the Sky: The Community Quest for Environmentally Sustainable Aviation
by Rae André

(First published in The Massachusetts Sierran, Summer 2003, Volume 9, Number 2)

Take Back the Sky is a powerful polemic hampered by a bad case of “not in my back yard” (NIMBY) narrowness. Rae André lives in Lexington, Massachusetts, near Hanscom Field, a small airport MassPort would like to turn into a large, commercial facility.

If you doubt the depth of anger that commercial jets can arouse in neighbors forced to endure the roar of takeoffs and landings, consider the reaction of Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. Daley lives near Meigs Field, a very small, private-planes-only facility that no one is attempting to expand but that the neighbors would very much like to close. Wearied by years of legal efforts to close Meigs Field, Mayor Daley took the direct route in early April 2003: he sent bulldozers at midnight to tear the runways up.

How loud is loud?
It is the roar of jet engines that makes neighbors hate airports, and to call this a “noise problem” is to make a mole hill out of a mountain. Your neighbor’s lawnmower is a noise problem. Living or working under a commercial runway is something else again. Children who attend schools near runways learn less and develop anxiety disorders. People who live near runways do even worse. Sleep deprivation and the assault of jet engine noise results in lowered performance at work, higher blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. The simple cure is to follow Mayor Daley’s example and bulldoze the runways.

Rae André notes that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has colluded with the airline industry to redefine noise. If airport noise was measured according to how loud it really is, neighbors could block airport expansions under federal noise pollution rules. Legally, however, the roar of a jet taking off is averaged in with all of the quiet minutes of the day when a jet was not taking off.

André attributes the drive for airport expansion to a “powerful industry” which threatens our “democratic processes and values” in many ways of which the rigging of noise pollution rules is only one. She asserts that the people oppose airport expansion, which only a greedy industry desires. Actually, the constituency for airport expansion is broader than André allows. We Americans love cheap and easy air travel. We love the ability to fly to Washington for a one-day meeting, the three-day weekends in London that have replaced the two-week vacation, and the cheap vacation flights to Aruba. In the matter of demand for air travel and the consequent need for airport expansion, we have met the enemy and they are us.

How fast is fast?
I am writing this review on the Acela. It is comfortable, I can plug in my laptop, and the views of Long Island Sound are charming. But it is too slow. Door to door from my Newton home to my Manhattan hotel room takes five hours.

The train trip from Tokyo to Osaka takes only 2½ hours with a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji thrown in gratis. Osaka is almost as far from Tokyo as Boston is from Washington.

Why does the Acela take 3¾ hours to get from Boston to New York when trains exist that could make the same run in about an hour? Largely because citizens groups in Eastern Connecticut cried NIMBY when Amtrak proposed straightening the tracks to allow the trains to go faster. Really fast trains on the Boston to Washington corridor will require not only track straightening, but expansion of the Boston to Washington main line, already near capacity with commuter, freight, and long-distance trains. Most transportation visionaries would like to use highway medians to build monorails that can handle speeds of 300 km/hr. It’s only 634 km from Boston to Washington.

NIMBY at its worst
André brings us back to earth with her concerns about pollution: not the pollution of jet engines, but the pollution spewed by all of the cars that would bring passengers to Hanscom if it became a commercial airport. She would like to use the impact of this air pollution on Lexington to block MassPort’s expansion plans.

This is NIMBY at its worst. After all, all of those cars are going to take their passengers and the pollution that they generate to some airport or other. Unless, of course, a collapse of the Saudi monarchy sends oil prices so high that demand for air travel shrivels.

If, instead of crying NIMBY, the people in Lexington who don’t want jets taking off in their back yards got together with the frequent flyers who dread waiting hours on the tarmac at LaGuardia for thunderstorms to clear, and with everyone who would prefer to breathe the cleaner air that results when inter-city travel goes by highspeed rail, we might persuade Congress to shift some of the massive subsidies that now go to build airports and highways toward building efficient highspeed rail links between cities. That would be the most effective way to begin to take back the skies.

Diana Muir, a regular contributor to the Sierran, is the author most recently of Bullough’s Pond.