Politics & Government

Here’s why your Charlotte neighborhood may be hearing more aircraft noise

Six months after it started, some are skeptical whether an airport roundtable group of 21 area residents will be able to find a way to mitigate airport noise.
Six months after it started, some are skeptical whether an airport roundtable group of 21 area residents will be able to find a way to mitigate airport noise. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Some Charlotte neighborhoods, including those in the SouthPark area, have seen an increase in aircraft noise over the past two years, frustrating residents who worry that a new citizen’s roundtable on fixing the noise problem isn’t helping.

Six months ago, Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the Federal Aviation Administration formed a group to study airport noise and make recommendations. But while airport officials say the meetings have been beneficial, some members are frustrated and believe the 21-member roundtable is a “political ploy.”

“Unfortunately the roundtable is what we all feared – simply a political ploy on the part of the airport to check a box for a talking point,” said Dave Chavoustie, a resident of The Sanctuary in southwest Charlotte.

Several residents believe the FAA has created flight paths that are most efficient for the airlines, sending planes over more densely populated areas to save time and fuel costs.

American Airlines, Charlotte’s dominant carrier, said it wants to find a solution.

“We are aware that some people are concerned about the traffic patterns the FAA has implemented in CLT’s airspace since 2015,” said spokesperson Katie Cody. “We remain committed to working with the FAA, the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and members of the community to identify and implement viable solutions. The primary concern must always be on the safe operation of aircraft transitioning to and from the runways at CLT and other area airports.”

Different flight paths, new complaints

Charlotte Douglas is the nation’s sixth busiest airport based on takeoffs and landings. As the second-largest hub for American Airlines, the airport has roughly 670 departures a day.

While some residents say the noise problem has gotten worse, it isn’t because the airport has gotten busier.

In 2015, the airport had 543,944 takeoffs and landings. A year later, the number of takeoffs and landings had risen less than a half of 1 percent.

What’s driving the complaints is that the FAA has changed how it brings planes in and out of the airport, which has led to different neighborhoods being impacted by noise.

Some neighborhoods have benefited. Others – like Mountainbrook south of Fairview Road – are seeing much more traffic.

“The FAA would say that Charlotte is a model (for air-traffic control),” said Brent Cagle, aviation director at Charlotte Douglas. “But I know there are a lot of folks in Charlotte who would dispute that.”

The FAA has the ability to direct planes on precise, narrow paths. Some people call them “rails” or “highways in the sky.”

But roughly six years ago, former aviation director Jerry Orr asked the FAA to disperse traffic, particularly departures. The city’s view was that it was better to spread out the annoyance of airport noise, rather than have it concentrated over a few neighborhoods.

On departures, the FAA now uses a technique called “dispersion.”

But that has created its own set of problems.

Here is an example of how the change has affected different neighborhoods:

When a plane bound for the Northeast takes off to the south, the FAA often directs the pilot to turn to the east much sooner than before.

In the past, that plane might have flown 5 miles to the south before making a turn. Today, planes often turn to the east after only 2 or 3 miles.

Brian Cox, a member of the roundtable who lives in Mountainbrook, said he requested data from the airport on flights to New York LaGuardia airport that flew over Mountainbrook over the same day in 2013, 2015 and 2017.

In 2013, no New York-bound flights passed over Mountainbrook. In 2015, there was one flight. In 2017, that jumped to eight.

In 2013, there were no departures to New York LaGuardia flying over the Mountainbrook neighborhood on a specific day. Charlotte Douglas Airport

On the same day in 2015, there was one departure to New York City flying over the neighborhood. Charlotte Douglas Airport

On the same day in 2017, there were eight daily departures to New York City flying over Mountainbrook. Charlotte Douglas Airport

He said arrivals are also a problem.

For arrivals, the FAA still has planes flying over a narrow rail. That means a few homes are inundated with arriving planes, Cox said.

These are the arrivals over the Mountainbrook area during one day in 2015. Charlotte Douglas Airport

Here are the arrivals during the same day in 2017. Charlotte Douglas Airport

Arrivals generally aren’t as loud as departures. But Cox and others say the FAA is bringing in planes lower than before. He said the average altitude of those arriving planes is about 5,000 feet – down from 6,500 feet two years ago.

Southwest Charlotte still impacted

The altitude of departing planes has also angered residents in southwest Charlotte, particularly in neighborhoods like The Sanctuary and Chapel Cove.

In the past, departing planes flew south for a few miles and then made a U-turn to the west and then to the north, flying over Chapel Cove and the Sanctuary. Today, planes often make a sharp turn to the west sooner, rather than a gentle U-turn. That puts them over those homes sooner – and at lower altitudes.

“From the perspective of those of us under the flight path, the situation continues to get worse,” said Jim Hughes, who lives in Steele Creek. “Departure altitudes continue to decline, increasing the noise level, and frequency of aircraft is increasing. Received the typical ‘wake-up call’ this morning at 5:30 as one of the early morning departures screamed over our house.”

Larry Salyers of Chapel Cove agrees that noise has gotten worse. He said the shorter flight paths are benefiting the airlines, which can save money on fuel by making turns faster.

“The roundtable is essentially a red herring,” he said. “It is simply something the airport can point to when anybody asks them what they’re doing about the noise.”

Cagle disagrees.

“I’ll be a glass half full kind of guy – I think there have been some good discussions that have come out of it,” Cagle said. “…I understand where the members are frustrated with a situation that doesn’t have a fast fix.”

Can roundtable find solutions?

Bob Petruska, a member of the roundtable who lives in Steele Creek, has asked the FAA study altitudes, and make sure planes are climbing as quickly as possible. He said he has reviewed data that shows departing planes flying over certain points at varying altitudes, sometimes as different as 1,400 feet.

Cox said the answer isn’t that difficult. Departing planes should fly straight for a longer time, gaining altitude. He suggested the “rails” or “highways in the sky” be placed over actual highways, like Interstate 485.

“They should fly them higher, for longer,” Cox said. “But who benefits from the efficiency? It’s American Airlines.”

Cagle said any change creates a domino effect.

“It produces winners and losers,” he said. “Something that may be great for Bob may be awful for someone we aren’t hearing from yet.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs