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Leaders say Louisville airport changes will bring less noise, but is it true?

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Airport officials have sent mixed messages at public meetings on whether people should expect less noise from airport flight path changes. One advocate warns the new flight paths shift the noise burden onto fewer people, but don’t necessarily create quieter skies.

Last month the Federal Aviation Administration announced a plan to change flight patterns at The Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.

Several airport leaders told the public that the changes would reduce noise from the planes flying over people’s homes. But in one of the public meetings there was a voice from the FAA contradicting everyone else:

“For this project, the noise screen does not show any change in noise from the proposed procedures,” said Gregory Hines, an FAA environmental specialist.

So Louisville Public Media emailed the FAA, seeking clarification. They confirmed that the flightpath changes are unlikely to have any change in “reportable quantity or any significant impacts.”

And the reality may be even more complicated than that.

Neighbors complain about airport noise

People in Yorktown North, a subdivision in southwest Louisville, regularly complain about airport noise. The airport actually encourages it. They keep track of the comments, which include details like “rattling windows” and “another sleepless night.”

We visited one morning around 4:30 a.m. during a week when neighbors said the noise wasn’t that bad. The noise wasn’t deafening, but the planes taking off roughly every two minutes created a constant drone.

Yorktown North residents are not alone — many people in Louisville have grumbled about plane noise at some point.

Currently, planes come in and out by a sort of “stair-stepping” motion that means engines have to power up and down abruptly. There’s also some variation allowed in the angles that pilots use to approach the airport.

In the future, they want to use a new method of gliding in and out on strictly fixed satellite-led paths, which they claim uses less fuel and improves safety.

But at the online public meetings, all most people cared about was “Will this mean less noise?”

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Several airport leaders like UPS Captain Jeff Kozak said, in theory, yes, the new flight patterns should reduce noise in Louisville neighborhoods.

“Really it’s a win-win-win for everybody,” Kozak said. “It’s a win for the community, cause it’s going to be quieter so they should hear less noise.”

But in the same meeting, Hines, the FAA environmental specialist, seemed to contradict their claims.

He did a routine noise study to see how the new plan would affect noise levels. But, given how often leaders gave vague predictions about how there would be less noise, his results are not what a lot of people took away from the public meetings.

News headlines read: “FAA proposes changes to cut down on noise at Louisville airport,” “Here's how the FAA looks to change flights to reduce neighborhood noise near the Louisville airport” and “FAA flight changes at Louisville airport could reduce neighborhood noise

So Louisville Public Media emailed the FAA, seeking clarification.

“Can I just clarify with you that, in fact, the FAAs studies show so far that the proposed changes will not create any less noise than currently experienced by residents?” we wrote.

An FAA spokesperson checked with Hines and replied.

“Correct,” the reply said.For this project, the noise screen does not show any change in reportable quantity or any significant impacts resulting from the procedure changes we just developed.”

LPM asked to interview Hines, hoping there may be a misunderstanding about a nuance of the technical review process. We were denied an interview and access to the FAA noise studies. Although the agency was seeking public comment, their spokesperson said that “documents won’t be publicly available until the process is complete.”

We also sent some of the news headlines to the FAA, and asked for help in clarifying what seemed to be a misunderstanding about the changes in airplane noise people should expect. They stopped responding.

Narrower flight path reducing noise for some, louder for others

Darlene Yaplee, president of Aviation-Impacted Communities Alliance, saw similar flight changes where she lives near San Francisco. Rather than reducing noise, she says it just shifted it — concentrating it on the unlucky few who lived under the new, narrow flight path.

So if you’re under the flight path, you have more noise and you’ve got a concentration of noise that everyone else used to have but on fewer people,” Yaplee said. “So the few people that now get the noise, get a lot of noise.”

Yaplee said the “less noise” claims probably stem from a totally different problem — the FAA currently measures noise based on the amount of people that are annoyed by it, not the amount of noise actually generated by planes.

The reduction of noise shouldn’t be measured by the amount of people that are affected by noise, but by how much noise is over people,” Yaplee said.

Citizens have advocated the FAA change their noise measurement models for some time. The agency initiated a policy review and gathered more than 7,000 public comments, but hasn’t taken action yet.

The future of airport noise in Yorktown North

A slide from a presentation the FAA gave on the flight changes shows the new proposed flight paths should decrease the number of planes that takeoff directly over Yorktown North.
Courtesy FAA
A slide from a presentation the FAA gave on the flight changes shows the new proposed flight paths should decrease the number of planes that takeoff directly over Yorktown North.

Back in Louisville, Democratic state representative Rachel Roarx has worked on the airport noise issue for years. She, too, was confused by the messaging at public meetings.

I didn’t know if that meant that there wouldn’t be any more noise or if that just meant there’s no change in noise,” Roarx said, prompting her to call an airport and government liaison to get clarification.

Roarx knows this may not solve the noise problem for everyone, but hopes it will help most people in the Yorktown North neighborhood, which the narrower path aims to avoid. She said she’ll continue to work with people along the new flight path to see if they can qualify for an airport program that installs windows and insulation at no cost.

“If we are able to shore up the flight paths and we know where people can expect the noise most often, it helps us really concentrate those efforts on what they were really intended to do,” Roarx said, saying the effort fits with the philosophy of previous airport programs including neighborhood buyouts.

Louisville Public Media also asked Dan Mann, executive director of the airport, to comment on the takeaway from the FAA’s noise study during a recent breakfast for Louisville business leaders.

“I think it will have a reduction in noise,” Mann said. “I don’t want to be contrary to what the FAA says, they’re the experts on this…it just absolutely has to be some level of noise reduction.”

The public can offer comments on the FAA's new flight plan until December 22. Officials anticipate new flight paths won’t actually start until around July 2024.

Louisville’s airport is scheduled to collect data in January for a routine five-year study to measure and forecast the amount of noise the airport creates. Mann promised an additional study to measure how noise is changed by the new flight paths.

“At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what I believe,” Mann said. “We’re going to do a noise study and we’ll prove if it does or doesn’t [reduce noise].”

Justin is LPM's Data Reporter. Email Justin at jhicks@lpm.org.