The potential for more frequent noise from Kennedy Airport jets -- a result of the FAA's pathbreaking "Next Generation" air traffic control redesign -- has united residents of Long Island's North and South shores to press for a full environmental impact study of the system's cumulative effects.
NextGen, predicted to cost at least $20 billion by 2025, is the Federal Aviation Administration's nationwide plan for satellite navigation of commercial flights, replacing the outmoded ground-based radar system in use since the 1950s. Congress has appropriated $2.8 billion for NextGen since 2007, and the system is in the early stages of development.
The satellite navigation system is supposed to increase capacity because planes could fly with 3 miles between them instead of the now-required 5-mile separation. Other NextGen positives, the FAA says, include enhanced safety, because pilots will have precise information about the location of other aircraft aloft; reduced jet noise over a wider swath of Nassau; and energy savings due to jets flying at near-idle throttle, burning less fuel.
More capacity should ease flight delays in the metropolitan area, which with three major airports and three regional airports is among the nation's busiest and most congested airspaces, the agency said. Chronic delays at Kennedy and LaGuardia airports often have a domino effect on air traffic, with planes held at the gates of other airports because of the inability to land in New York.
But for Nassau residents with homes and businesses beneath Kennedy flight paths, NextGen's precision in setting aircraft departure and arrival paths brings the probability of more frequent jet noise.
The more exact paths will cause "more noise for fewer people," compared with current, less precise routes that cover a wider swath of sky and cause "less noise for more people," said Maxine Lubner, chairman of the aviation department at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, which is adjacent to LaGuardia.
Len Schaier, head of the group Citizens for Quiet Skies over North Hempstead, said the chance for public comment to the FAA about NextGen galvanized residents and some elected officials in the towns of Hempstead and North Hempstead.
"The goal was to say, 'We're not against progress.' But there are some people in the FAA who believe you have to do an environmental test," Schaier said of the grassroots letter-writing and Web-posting campaign. "We believe you have to do an environmental test."
The FAA instituted new flight departure paths for Kennedy in late October, a first step in NextGen's implementation. Those changes have a minimal noise impact, the agency asserted, in part because the jets are at altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 feet. One of the new departure routes out of Kennedy was forecast to send an additional 200 planes a day over the North Shore.
"I have not been able to sleep through the night," Deirdre A. Nicolle, of Port Washington, wrote in a letter to the FAA ahead of the March 7 deadline for public comments regarding NextGen. "The airplane noise is so loud that it can be heard inside my house, even though all the doors and windows in my house are closed."
"There is too much noise pollution in my area due to low-flying planes," wrote Jay Dubowsky of East Hills. "My children are awakening at night due to plane noise."
The FAA defended its effort as making air travel more convenient and dependable.
In addition, changes to air routes were subject to "appropriate environmental review" to comply with antinoise regulations and environmental law, the agency said. "The FAA is committed to environmental stewardship, especially in the development of NextGen-related air traffic procedures," the agency said in a statement.
The agency would not make air traffic control managers available for an interview.
Residents said NextGen needs further study. Specifically, they said that noise-impact research the FAA did before carrying out an airspace redesign project ahead of NextGen was superficial and did not take into account the cumulative impact of jet noise.
The FAA's noise research, conducted before the airspace redesign was released in August 2007, included average noise levels in decibels. Residents said they want an environmental study that measures the noise from single-event passes of jets over their homes -- not a calculation averaged over time.
"In that average could be some really high doses" of noise, Schaier said.
Federal lawmakers were unsuccessful in an attempt to insert into the FAA Reauthorization and Reform Act a requirement for an environmental impact study in the New York region. President Barack Obama signed the legislation Feb. 14.
Residents' heightened concern about more aircraft noise has sparked interest in community efforts focused on the issue.
About 100 people, far more than the usual number, turned out at a Feb. 27 meeting of the Town-Village Aircraft Safety and Noise Abatement Committee.
The window for public comment to the FAA about NextGen was Dec. 12 through March 7. Dozens of people wrote letters and more than 325 people posted comments on the U.S. Department of Transportation's website as of Friday. Of those, Schaier said, 81 from Hempstead and North Hempstead towns also signed his group's petition calling for a new environmental study.
Julie Liberman, who was among those posting a comment, said in an interview that she first noticed an increase in air traffic a few months ago, with more noise particularly between 7 and 9 p.m. In her 25 years as a Roslyn resident, she said, she can't remember a time when the noise was worse.
"It's very loud," Liberman said. "Just constant traffic, one right after the other."
HIGHLIGHTS OF NextGen
WHAT IT IS: The federal government's effort to update the technology used to manage the nation's air traffic control system. It calls for satellite-based navigation that will give air traffic controllers and pilots real-time information on an aircraft's location, heading and speed.
BENEFITS: By using more precision routes when aided by satellite navigation, flights will become more efficient and mean less air pollution. Officials say NextGen will reduce total delays (in-flight and on the ground) by about 35 percent, compared with what would happen if nothing changed. That delay reduction will provide $23 billion through 2018 in cumulative benefits to aircraft operators, travelers and the FAA. About 1.4 billion gallons of aviation fuel would be saved during this period, cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 14 million tons.
COST: About $2.8 billion has been appropriated for NextGen, which the FAA estimates will cost at least $20 billion by 2025 to get the system up and running.
Source: Federal Aviation Administration