Thousands more residents living near Kennedy and LaGuardia airports could be eligible for federal grants to pay for insulating houses and apartments from aircraft noise if the Federal Aviation Administration adopts new noise standards.
The agency has spent the past four years reviewing whether to update the metric it has used for more than three decades to measure the impact of aviation noise on people and land use, according to FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta.
If the agency revises its criteria, local advocates and residents say thousands of people in Queens and Nassau could benefit. "It's time to stop reviewing. It's time to start taking action," said Len Schaier, president of quietskies.net, a local advocacy group, noting that airports in Europe have modified their standards. "The same plane that makes noise in England makes noise here in New York. If it's too noisy in Heathrow, why isn't it too noisy here?"
The Port Authority estimated 37,294 residents lived in 12,112 dwellings in 2013 in Nassau and Queens where the day-night average noise level (DNL) was 65 decibels or higher -- the threshold that the FAA deems too noisy.
Noise generated by airplanes and airport operations has created a problem for hundreds of thousands of people living near airports and under flight paths across the country and has become a political issue.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and a dozen congressional colleagues wrote a letter to the FAA last month asking that the nationwide review be expedited and that the noise threshold be lowered to 55 DNL.
"The current . . . metric is outdated and disconnected from the real impact that air traffic noise is having on our constituents and should be lowered to a more reasonable standard of 55 decibel DNL," said Israel and his colleagues.
If the FAA drops the noise threshold to 55 DNL, residents and advocates said many more densely populated neighborhoods would be counted among those impacted by aircraft noise. They said the number of people considered to be subjected to excessive noise would double.
Noise mitigation funds
Noise levels at 65 decibels and above are considered too high for residential neighborhoods and Congress has set aside money to help pay for noise mitigation projects that could include soundproofing homes. The average office noise is 60 decibels and an ambulance siren is 95.
Sound insulation work may include the installation of acoustical windows and doors. In certain cases it may mean new heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems to help block out the jet noise to make it easier for residents to sleep, watch television or carry on a conversation inside their homes.
The cost of insulating a home from aircraft noise can vary widely, depending on the size of the home and other factors, said Ron Marsico, a spokesman for the Port Authority.
In Minneapolis, where homeowners have received federal money, full soundproofing cost about $45,000 per home in 2007. That included new windows and doors, wall insulation, roof baffles, air conditioning, furnaces and duct work.
The assessment is expected to be completed in December 2015, the FAA's Huerta said in a written response to lawmakers' inquiries. Revisions, if any, won't come until 2016 at the earliest.
As part of the examination, Huerta said the FAA plans to conduct a public opinion survey in communities around 20 major airports, which he did not name.
"This research primarily involves developing a national survey to evaluate the American public's annoyance reaction to aircraft noise in the current operating environment," he said.
Noise map updates
The agency also plans to update noise contour maps at the 20 airports, Huerta said, so the FAA could link the survey findings to actual noise levels.
Annoyance, however, is only one factor that impacts those exposed to the incessant roar of jets flying over their homes, Schaeir said.
"The key thing is we have to change the focus from annoyance to annoyance plus the impact on health; the impact on children's education and pollution," he said.
Last month, the Port Authority announced that it has hired Environmental Science Associates, based in San Francisco, to identify which neighborhoods surrounding the Queens airports are receiving excessive jet noise and come up with plans to mitigate its impact on residents. The authority, pressed by advocates and local elected officials, agreed to go beyond the FAA requirement and identify communities impacted by aircraft noise at the lower threshold of 55 DNL.
In 1979, the Aviation Safety and Noise Abatement Act tasked the FAA with coming up with rules for noise compatibility planning. In 1984, the FAA developed a set of regulations -- commonly referred to as a Part 150 study -- that guides airport noise compatibility programs. It consists of two major components: noise exposure maps identifying the levels of noise inside the airports and surrounding neighborhoods, and a noise compatibility program designed to mitigate the noise.
Both must be approved by the FAA before any federal grants would be disbursed. Homeowners, however, cannot apply to the FAA directly for the grants. Airport operators, in this case the Port Authority, may apply for funding, then use the money to help homeowners pay for sound insulation.
To qualify, a residence has to meet two criteria: It must be located in a 65 DNL zone or above, and noise levels inside the home have to be 45 DNL or higher.
Since 1982, the FAA has provided $5.8 billion to 481 airports to pay for mitigation efforts for residential and public buildings under its Airport Improvement Program, according to a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office.
The Port Authority has received about $292 million in grants to help pay for soundproofing public schools near Kennedy, LaGuardia, Newark-Liberty and Teterboro airports since 1983, Marsico said.
Seventy-seven schools have received money for soundproofing since 1983, he said.
The authority chose to participate in the school insulation program, Marsico said, because the Port Authority did not have to conduct a Part 150 study, which he said is required for residential mitigation program.
Marsico did not respond to a question regarding why the Port Authority did not conduct a Part 150 until it was ordered to do so this year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
According to the GAO report, the Port Authority indicated "a residential noise insulation program would not alleviate noise exposure when people are outside their homes -- they noted complaints peak in the summer -- and AIP's [the Airport Improvement Program's] grant-matching requirements would be financially prohibited."