Noise from new flight paths over neighborhoods angering residents in Phoenix, other cities

Steve Dreiseszun says he cannot sit in his backyard or read a story to his son without a sense of dread.

For the past several months, he and other residents in a Phoenix neighborhood of historic homes have been jolted — sometimes out of their sleep — by the sound of airplanes flying directly above them. The noise sometimes comes every three minutes and can last through the night.

"You want to read a book or you're trying to study something on the computer and these flights are overhead, it breaks your train of thought," Dreiseszun said. "Outside the house we've lost the enjoyment of our property. It's not just an annoyance. It impacts our quality of life."

Residents and city officials have been up in arms since September, when the Federal Aviation Administration implemented new satellite-based arrival and departure paths out of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The changes are part of a program the FAA is rolling out at major airports across the country as it looks to replace an outdated network of radar and radio communications with satellite-based and digital communications.

The new system is designed to save fuel, reduce emissions and make air travel more efficient nationwide as airplanes are able to make more efficient and direct flight paths in and out of airports.

But in some cities, those flight paths happen to be over neighborhoods, creating noise complaints.

In Phoenix, the changes sent flight paths directly above historic downtown homes, enraging residents. Some have been lashing out at federal officials in community meetings and talking about filing a lawsuit.

Other cities where residents have been complaining of noise amid the new flight paths include Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the changes drew fire from the northwest side of the city and its surrounding suburbs. Two Illinois congressional representatives joined other lawmakers to urge action.

Congress approved the NextGen program in 2003, and the agency already has spent more than $5 billion on developing it at major U.S. airports. Until recently, the loudest complaints about the program came from members of Congress who were upset about the price tag. But now, noise has become the big complaint.

In Phoenix, the new flight paths are over neighborhoods that have experienced a renaissance in recent years as the city's real estate market rebounded. Vintage three-bedroom homes in the heart of downtown routinely sell for $500,000 and higher.

Residents are convinced people will leave the neighborhood and prospective buyers will be skittish about moving in because of the jet noise, causing property values to sink.

Jennifer Longdon says she likely would have gone elsewhere if she knew what was in store when she moved into her home in May. Longdon says she has been awakened at 2 a.m., when "it sounds like bombers are overhead."

"These houses have been here a hundred years," said Longdon, a writer who works from home. "I didn't move into a Sky Harbor flight path. A flight path moved over my house."

As of December, the City of Phoenix Aviation Department had received more than 2,700 noise complaints from nearly 950 households since the Sept. 18 changes. By comparison, the department received roughly 220 complaints from 43 households in 2013. The noise also has affected other areas of Phoenix and the suburb of Tempe.

The indignation even has some city officials considering a lawsuit.

In a meeting with city representatives last month, the FAA said it would not revert to old flight paths while the issue gets further study. Two city council members said the decision showed a "blatant disregard for our communities' quality of life."

They want the city to look into litigation and filing a complaint with the National Historic Preservation Association.

In a letter to the city manager, FAA administrator Michael Huerta said city officials could take part in ongoing discussions with a "performance-based navigation working group" later this month. The group will look at possible new flight paths and procedures.

Aviation experts say the outrage over the noise debate in Phoenix obscures the fact that the program is designed to make air travel safer and more efficient. The FAA says the new flight paths allow airlines to save fuel and offer more flights while reducing delays.

"You could increase the capacity of the airspace and therefore be able to increase frequency of flights, which could give passengers more options," said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit think tank. "Now, that of course doesn't seem to be helpful for the people who care about noise. But for people who care about frequency of service, it's a real improvement."

Schank said the FAA would not have done such an overhaul if the agency didn't see potential for a real benefit without endangering safety standards.

"It's no fun being the people who get the louder noise," Schank said. "Somebody's always going to be upset. and the best thing you can do is keep working on improvements to the technology and to the flight path that can reduce noise."


Associated Press writer Joan Lowy in Washington contributed to this report.