What can be done about airplane noise?

By Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer
Airplane noise is disruptive and annoying.
Airplane noise is disruptive and annoying.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve noticed more and more air traffic over my house in Seattle, and I’m getting a little sick of all the noise. Is there anything I can do to force the airlines to disperse their routes more widely or, even better, cut back on their number of flights?      

-- Bill G., Seattle
     As we all fly more and more these days, airlines have responded by packing the friendly skies full of flights. If you live or work near a major airport, chances are air traffic noise is your constant companion throughout the day and oftentimes overnight. But with noise exposure linked to reduced worker efficiency, increased hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and impaired cognitive performance in school children, maybe it’s time we reconsider what’s tolerable in terms of air traffic noise.
    Some cities (and their airports) have started Fly Quiet programs to encourage airlines to use more modern, quieter planes and schedule their takeoffs and landings to minimize or spread out noise pollution. For instance, San Francisco’s SFO airport bestows its own “Fly Quiet Award” annually to the airlines that operate the quietest at this Bay Area hub. Seattle, Chicago, Oakland, California, and several other major airports across the U.S. have followed suit with similar programs.
   Airlines that have garnered Fly Quiet honors for noise abatement include Southwest, Spirit, SkyWest, Virgin Atlantic, Interjet and Air China. Individuals can encourage these Fly Quiet efforts by patronizing only airlines that are taking steps to quiet their fleets. And if your local airport doesn’t already have its own Fly Quiet program, be the squeaky wheel to help get one started.
    Of course, the issue could be moot if Stephen Barrett’s team of aeronautics researchers at MIT have their way. The successful maiden voyage of their quiet lithium-ion powered plane last November sent a silent shock wave through the industry. The futuristic prototype uses electricity to lift and propel the plane via “electro-aerodynamic propulsion,” essentially by creating an “ionic wind” through dispersal of positively and negatively charged electrodes under the wing.
    While we may be years away from everyday commercial airplanes powered by electro-aerodynamic propulsion, the technology could have more immediate applications in quieting down drones. "The near-term advantage is probably in noise, especially if you think that perhaps in 10 years, we might have urban areas that are filled with drones doing things like monitoring traffic, monitoring air pollution, or maybe other services we’re yet to imagine,” Barrett tells MIT Technology Review. “Drones today are quite noisy and irritating."
    Of course, quiet drones (or planes) aren't exactly what some environmentalists consider a solution. Gordon Hempton is defending a single square inch of untrammeled temperate rainforest deep in the middle of Washington state’s Olympic National Park from human noise pollution of any kind. Since the spot in question is in a wilderness more than 3 miles from the nearest building or road, the only sound of human machinery that can break the otherwise otherworldly natural soundscape is an airplane engine. So Hempton has been fighting with the airlines and Navy to get them to stop flying over the center of Olympic National Park in order to preserve 1 square inch from the auditory incursions of humankind. 


     Are green airplanes on the horizon?

     This column was reprinted with permission. EarthTalk is produced by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.  

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