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Chicago Tribune: O'Hare noise complaints reach record heights in 2013

Jan 13, 2014
In the News

The following article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on January 13, 2014. The original article can be found here.

By Jon Hilkevitch

Residential noise complaints involving jets at O'Hare International Airport hit a record in 2013, which included a spike in objections just after a runway opened in the fall, according to a new city report.

The noise complaints rose 36 percent from October to November, to 4,763. That is the first full month after flight patterns were changed at O'Hare in mid-October to incorporate a fourth east-west runway, according to data compiled by the Chicago Department of Aviation.

A total of 24,847 complaints were filed between January and November — more than for any full year on record since Chicago installed noise-monitoring devices in 1996, said Jeffrey Jackson, an aviation planner at Landrum & Brown, which provides consulting services to the aviation department.

"It does look like, for the year, we will have the largest number of complaints we've ever had,'' Jackson said at a meeting Friday of the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.

December data will be available next month.

Congressman Mike Quigley, whose district includes O'Hare, predicted that complaints will rise further in the spring, when windows are open.

"People are going to be outside, in their backyards. You can image that these complaints are going to go way up,'' Quigley said.

Under the air-traffic changes, the majority of planes take off on runways heading west, and most arriving flights approach O'Hare from the east.

As a result, airplane noise patterns have shifted. Areas to the east and west of O'Hare are experiencing more jet noise, while areas to the north and south of the airport are generally enjoying a noise reduction.

As complaints from residents and Chicago-area members of Congress have risen, so has pressure to expand voluntary guidelines designed to reduce jet noise. Proponents want these "fly quiet" times, which call on pilots and air traffic controllers to use designated runways and flight tracks from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., to begin at 9 p.m.

But city aviation officials are taking a hard line against making adjustments.

"The Chicago Department of Aviation and its airline partners have made a considerable investment in modernizing O'Hare so that it can better serve the aviation needs of people and businesses,'' Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino said in a letter dated Wednesday to Quigley and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, whose district includes parts of Chicago and some northern suburbs.

"O'Hare handles a considerable amount of traffic between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. that would be negatively impacted by limiting available runways. As a result, the (aviation department) does not support any changes to the hours of the Fly Quiet Program,'' Andolino said.

In the letter, Andolino also ruled out possible changes to flight paths, saying such a move would "simply displace noise impacts from one neighborhood to another.''

Andolino did not respond to a Tribune request Friday for an interview.

Quigley said he will press for the city and the Federal Aviation Administration to equally distribute takeoffs and landings on O'Hare's four parallel east-west runways to reduce the noise burden on single neighborhoods.

He supports the runway expansion project, but he also has pushed harder for accommodations from the city in recent months, based on feedback from his constituents.

"I don't think anyone who lives near O'Hare bargained for such a saturation of noise in a single area," Quigley said in a Friday phone interview from Washington. "We are starting to get readings from noise monitors that are farther out too, like in the North Park neighborhood, and the decibels are pretty high.''

Quigley said he has not spoken face-to-face recently with Andolino or Mayor Rahm Emanuel on the noise issue, but he plans to soon.

"I am hoping we can make a robust aviation system not incompatible with robust neighborhoods,'' he said.

Schakowsky said she expects that any concessions from Chicago on noise reductions will be "small, but victories nonetheless.''

Part of her focus involves pushing for the FAA to expedite an ongoing nationwide review over whether to reduce the threshold — currently 65 decibels averaged over a 24-hour period — in which homeowners qualify for federal assistance to make sound-insulation repairs.

"We feel the 65 DNL (day-night average sound level) is an outdated metric that is not really representative of the level of discomfort that is experienced,'' Schakowsky said.

The FAA plans to conduct a public opinion survey in communities around 20 major airports "to evaluate the American public's annoyance reaction to aircraft noise,'' FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said.

In addition, the FAA is updating noise contour maps at the 20 airports, including O'Hare, to link the survey findings to the actual noise levels, Huerta said. O'Hare's noise contour map has not been revised since the first new runway in almost 40 years opened in late 2008.

Regarding the November data for O'Hare, about half of the complaints received came from Chicago residents.

"We've been encouraging people to call because what we have seen in the past, prior to October, is a very low level total number of complaints,'' said Chicago Ald. John Arena, 45th.

"We are kind of in a place where our hands are tied and I don't have the answer right now,'' said Arena, who serves on the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission board. "The boundaries of the residential sound-proofing program don't reach into the 45th Ward. It is the complaints that will drive the change.''

A total of 4,763 complaints were phoned in to the city-run toll-free noise hotline or filed online in November, up from 3,496 total complaints in the previous month. It was Oct. 17 when O'Hare opened its fourth east-west runway, dubbed 10 Center/28 Center.

November's noise-complaint tally represented a 124 percent increase over September, when 2,124 complaints were received.

A total of 2,321 complaints received in November came from Chicago, mostly from the 41st and 45th wards. Next highest were complaints registered by residents of Norridge, Wood Dale, Park Ridge, Bensenville and Elmhurst, the data show.

"I'm very accustomed to living close to the airport, but this change is really unbearable for us,'' said Cheryl Hansen, a Wood Dale resident who previously lived in Bensenville, where residents are reporting cracks in their walls and ceilings from the vibration of jet engines.

"It looks like an air show, with planes turning left, planes turning right,'' said Hansen, who lives in the Whispering Oaks subdivision in the 400 block of East Montrose Avenue in the suburb. "If they just went straight up, it seems to me there would be a lot less noise.''

The city of Chicago has 32 noise meters in 18 suburbs, Chicago and unincorporated Cook County. The data revealed roughly equal numbers of monitoring sites experiencing either higher or lower decibel readings in November, compared with November 2012.

Thirteen sites, including in Chicago, saw an increase of 1 decibel or more over a 24-hour period, while 12 locations registered a decrease of 1 decibel or more. Readings at five locations were basically the same, while one monitor was out of service.

Average noise readings were significantly higher in November compared with the same month in 2012 in Bensenville and in portions of Chicago, Des Plaines, Elk Grove Village, Mount Prospect, Park Ridge, Rosemont and Wood Dale, the city aviation department's aircraft noise report showed.

Areas receiving some noise relief included Arlington Heights, Melrose Park, Rolling Meadows, Franklin Park, Harwood Heights, Stone Park and Northlake, the report said. Fewer arriving flights are now coming in from the northwest toward the airport.

Wood Dale Mayor Nunzio Pulice said some residents of his suburb have downloaded a computer program that shows readings of up to 100 decibels. That noise level is equivalent to riding on a motorcycle or using a jackhammer, according to a noise comparison compiled by Purdue University.

"There is a six-story building on Irving Park Road that I can see right from my house,'' Pulice, who is a member of the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission, said at Friday's meeting.

"Sometimes it looks like the planes are 100 feet off the top of that roof and residents tell me it rattles everybody's windows. Then another plane comes along and you don't hear it, because it is much higher. I would like to have some answers that I can give back to my residents. I'm getting the calls at the house,'' Pulice said.

Aaron Frame, a city assistant aviation commissioner in the noise office, said factors such as the type of plane and wind conditions will account for the variances. He said O'Hare uses three primary runways for departures, to the west, northwest, southwest.

The O'Hare departure runway that was used the most often in November was 32 Left, which faces northwest; and the most-used arrival runway was 27 Left, which faces west, according to the city aviation department.

But departures on another west-facing runway, 28 Right, increased by 15 percentage points from October to November, as did arrivals on the west-facing portion of the runway that debuted in October, the new city aviation noise data shows.

Although this serves little consolation to noise-weary residents, all the changes were predicted in the environmental impact studies that were conducted a decade ago, Frame said.

Such an argument is a diversionary tactic, said Jac Charlier, co-leader of Fair Allocation in Runways, which is urging for the city and the FAA to spread out the noise by using all runways available, day and night.

"The city is still taking no real input from the communities," Charlier said. "All we get are words — and words that are hard to hear over the increased plane noise. Citizens are being locked out of the process that affects their quality of life."