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Complaints about airplane noise rise at Reagan National, Dulles

Airplane noise complaints have rebounded at Reagan National and Dulles International airports after a pandemic-era lull, a rise that mirrors a resurgence in air travel.

Residents in the Washington region filed more than 205,000 complaints about aircraft noise tied to National and Dulles flights in 2022, according to an annual aircraft noise report this summer from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. The number was slightly below 2019 levels — the year before the global pandemic grounded most air travel — but 56,600 more than in 2021.

The bulk of the complaints, about 178,500, involved flights at National. About 26,800 were a response to air traffic at Dulles.

Officials with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which operates both facilities, said they weren’t surprised the number of complaints grew as air traffic approached levels last seen before the pandemic. The rise could add fodder to a debate over amending rules that would allow more long-distance flights at National — a proposal that could be decided by the end of next month.

Some members of Congress and business groups, many from western states, argue that additional flights would lower airfare and make the nation’s capital more accessible. Opponents, including the Washington region’s congressional delegation, say more flights would add delays at National while harming Dulles and the regional economy.

The changes are being contemplated as part of a must-pass measure to fund the Federal Aviation Administration. The current law that funds the FAA will expire Sept. 30. Both airports are owned by the federal government, which gives Congress the ability to increase the number of flights at National.

While the number of noise complaints is up, airport officials caution about reading too much into the numbers, noting that many factors, including weather patterns and heightened media attention, can influence the number of complaints filed. They also said residents who file hundreds of complaints can artificially inflate the numbers.

Complaints about noise from Washington-area airports skyrocket

Longtime Arlington resident Larry O’Reilly said he’s not surprised the number of noise complaints has continued to grow. Since he moved to his home about two miles from National in 1984, he said he’s noticed a steady increase in the number of flights — particularly in the early morning. He’s concerned about the possibility that Congress could add more.

“There are tens of thousands of us that are going to be affected,” he said. “Where do we fit into the discussion?”

An amendment to the FAA funding bill to add seven round trip flights daily at National that could travel beyond a 1,250-mile perimeter was voted down last month. However, supporters of the plan, who originally sought to add 28 daily round trip flightsbefore settling on seven — are hoping to persuade the Senate to include the provision in its version of the funding measure.

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In a recent letter to leaders of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, members of the DCA Community Working Group, which formed in 2015 to address aircraft noise at National, raised concerns about adding more flights at the airport.

“While expanding the perimeter to permit nonstop flights to cities such as San Antonio or El Paso may benefit a limited few in terms of convenience, many thousands more D.C. area residents would suffer the negative impacts of those flights,” members of the group wrote.

According to the MWAA report, the number of noise complaints dropped significantly during the first year of the pandemic, a trend that officials attribute to a sharp reduction in the number of flights. Before the pandemic, about 4,000 flights operated daily in the region’s airspace, including commercial, private and military aircraft. During March 2020, that number dropped to 1,400 before rebounding to about 2,400 in December that year.

In 2020, the number of noise complaints at both airports dropped to 88,533, the lowest in several years. But as demand for air travel rebounded in 2021, complaints increased to more than 148,700, then continued to rise.

“[We’ll] exert every effort into reducing noise where noise can be reduced, but there are very few opportunities for even small noise level reductions,” said Mike Jeck, author of the report and manager of MWAA’s noise office.

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One reason it can be difficult to adjust flight paths to address complaints is that flights in the D.C. region operate in the most congested U.S. airspace outside of New York. Security restrictions also complicate the FAA’s ability to manage air traffic, Jeck said.

Last month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said National “is one of the most heavily used runways in the world,” pointing to the “tough job” the FAA has in maximizing use of the airport while factoring in safety and community concerns about noise.

While noise complaints have risen at Dulles and National, data from the Maryland Aviation Administration showed the number of complaints at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall declined last year. Residents filed more than 435,000 noise complaints tied to flights at BWI in 2022, about 122,000 fewer than in 2021. In 2019, residents submitted nearly 551,500 complaints about aircraft noise.

“We are not aware of significant airspace changes in the past few years that would impact the number of callers,” Jonathan Dean, a BWI spokesman, wrote in an email.


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