Noisy Skies

Why Are These Planes Overhead?

November 15, 2023 The Aloft Group Season 1 Episode 1
Noisy Skies
Why Are These Planes Overhead?
Show Notes Transcript

Aviation noise is not just for those who live near airports. Over the past decade, many people who never had any planes flying overhead now live with airplane noise. With the coming aviation innovations like Amazon delivery drones and other technologies, the noise in our skies will only accelerate. This podcast series is a resource for the people affected by aviation noise who need to understand the complex and interconnected systems that govern our airspace and land planning.

In this debut episode of the Noisy Skies podcast from The Aloft Group, host Carolyn McCulley talks with guests Jim Allerdice of Vianair, Inc., and Emily Tranter of N.O.I.S.E. about the basics of aviation noise and how flight path changes the FAA introduced affected even more people on the ground.

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The Aloft Group draws on decades of aviation experience to help communities navigate the complexity of aviation noise. To learn more about how Aloft can help your community, visit
Noisy Skies is a production of Citygate Films
© 2023 Citygate Films LLC



[00:00:00] Carolyn McCulley: Buying a home is an incredibly complex set of decisions. By the time you've checked out the neighborhood, made your offer, done your home inspection, and reached your closing date, it can seem like you know all that you can about this purchase. But one factor about your home is often not as apparent until you move in.

[00:00:23] This is the story about that unknown factor. In my case, I was thrilled when I bought a new home at the end of 2019 in a brand-new neighborhood.

[00:00:37] I knew I was buying near Dulles International Airport, but I never heard any planes overhead when I was visiting the home site. For good measure, I checked out the airport's website, and I looked at the noise map, which I assumed tracked with where the planes flew. The noise map showed planes flying to the south of me, so it was all good.

[00:00:59] The builder broke ground for my house in March 2020. I wasn't even sure it could be worked on during the pandemic shutdown. Fortunately, construction workers were deemed essential, so the work continued. During that time, my only entertainment was visiting the construction site every weekend because I literally had nowhere else to go.

[00:01:22] I moved in during June of 2020. A few months later, I noticed a few planes overhead around dinnertime. And then slowly, the air traffic returned.

[00:01:42] This I was not prepared for. And please note, that's not an airplane sound effect. That's a real recording made just with my iPhone standing in my backyard. Where were these planes when I was visiting the site prior to the pandemic? Why were these planes flying outside of the noise map? And why were they flying so low overhead?

[00:02:04] If you've ever asked similar questions, this podcast is for you. But it's not just for you. It's also for people who work in the aviation industry, or deal with zoning or real estate, or homeowner association management. Because these questions led me on an entirely unexpected journey to get these answers.

[00:02:23] And the more I learned, the more I realized how specialized, and even siloed, the experts are. And that means those people impacted by aircraft noise are on their own to learn everything the hard way.

[00:02:41] But not anymore. I'm Carolyn McCulley, and this is the Noisy Skies Podcast. A podcast from The Aloft Group. So I invite you now to sit back and relax with episode one: Why are these planes overhead?

[00:03:13] The issue of aviation noise is not just for those who live near airports. Over the past decade, many people who never had any planes flying overhead now live with airplane noise. And with the coming aviation innovations like Amazon delivery drones and other technologies, the noise in our skies will only continue to accelerate.

[00:03:34] The challenge is that those flight paths are basically invisible to the average person. Now if our local government wants to construct a new road near us,

[00:03:46] there are obvious signs that this construction is happening. Sometimes we get notices and invitations to public meetings, too. But when the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, wants to change flight paths, they study the complex system that's called the National Airspace System, and they work within their own bureaucracy to get it done.

[00:04:07] Rarely does the public know anything about it. So the problem is while we can't see the flight paths, we experience them. 

[00:04:18] Plane SFX with voices: Wowee, it's low!

[00:04:26] Carolyn McCulley: When this subject comes up in the news media or on social media, inevitably people ask the same question: Why did we buy so close to the airport if we didn't want to live with noise? I wonder, do they ask this of the developers who built these communities? Or the builders who constructed the homes and expected someone to move in?

[00:04:46] So I will say this, it's much easier to question and even blame the decisions of individuals, rather than question the collective decisions of land developers, local zoning departments, county officials, city officials, airport managers, and even the FAA, that created or contributed to the reason someone is now living with aviation noise.

[00:05:09] Because to understand this interconnected system as a mere individual is a monumental task. So that's why this podcast series exists. It's a resource for the stakeholders in this interconnected system who are often left out of the equation.

[00:05:28] Carolyn McCulley: For now, I want to offer this important caveat. I am the daughter of an Air Force fighter pilot. I was making cross country flights in my father's Cessna as an infant. And the year before the pandemic shut everything down, I was traveling incessantly: Los Angeles, Stockholm, London, Boston, Seattle, Scotland, Ireland.

[00:05:47] I was definitely a frequent flyer. And I have lived for decades within 20 minutes of each of Washington, D.C. 's airports. On purpose. I'm not against airports or commercial aviation. 

[00:06:00] Jim: Aircraft noise, there really isn't such a thing as a fix, but there is a mitigation. 

[00:06:06] Carolyn McCulley: That's Jim Allerdice. He is Chief of Consulting Operations for Vianair, Incorporated.

[00:06:11] Before joining Vianair, Jim worked for the FAA for 30 years, most of it as an air traffic controller.

[00:06:17] Jim: Most people that I have talked to that were air traffic controllers wouldn't do anything else. And I always like to say it's hours and hours of boredom followed by a few minutes of sheer panic. But it's a really great career.

[00:06:31] I would encourage anybody who is looking for something to do in aviation to check it out. And I think that would be awesome if they could do it. And they're looking for controllers now, big time. 

[00:06:41] Carolyn McCulley: As with everyone I interviewed for this podcast, I asked Jim what common misconceptions people have about aircraft noise.

[00:06:49] Jim: I think a common misconception is that airports have more control over noise than they do. Another misconception is that the city, the county, the state can do something about aircraft noise. They cannot. The FAA has total control of all airspace in the USA and local governments cannot, by ordinance or anything like that, affect aircraft noise.

[00:07:16] It's only the FAA. So that's, I think, a big misconception of communities is that their state and local governments actually have a say in it, and they don't. 

[00:07:26] Carolyn McCulley: So, three thoughts here. One, it's not surprising that people think airports have some control over noise. Because most noise complaints go to airports.

[00:07:36] But two, while it's true that the FAA has sole authority over the U.S. airspace system, local communities and their elected representatives have been able to work with the FAA through a system the FAA established called FAA Roundtables, or sometimes Community Working Groups, or Task Forces. They have different names for different purposes.

[00:07:57] We'll explore that process in a future episode. Jim himself has participated in these groups, so here he was just giving me the quick answer about misconceptions. Finally, what's also true is that each expert on aviation noise that I've talked to looks at this issue through the lens of their own work and experience.

[00:08:18] So now, Emily Tranter offers a slightly different take, based on her experience as an aviation lobbyist. 

[00:08:25] Emily: This is a real hard issue to engage on and figure out the right tools. I don't think it should be on the backs of community groups to figure this stuff out. I think really their local governments should be their advocates.

[00:08:37] Because people are just absolutely shocked that this could happen with no recourse, no way for communities to say, or impacted people to say, I don't want this noise over my house. Like, how could the government do this to me? But to your earlier point as well, airports don't have a ton of autonomy. They don't create the tracks, they don't create the airspace, but they can be a really good advocate because they know what's going on at their airport.

[00:09:05] But, if you had engaged in this issue 10 years ago or 15 years ago compared to now, it is night and day. The FAA has made progress. 

[00:09:14] Carolyn McCulley: Emily is an aviation lobbyist and the executive director of N.O.I.S.E., which stands for the National Organization to Insure a Sound Controlled Environment. 

[00:09:25] Emily: In the early ’70s, N.O.I.S.E. was started by a couple of core communities that were airport adjacent. And this was during major expansion in airports where there was new runways, multiple runways, where capacity was increasing.

[00:09:40] And these communities were small and didn't have ownership of their airports, communities like College Park, Georgia and Aurora, Colorado, and communities next to San Francisco Airport. The issues back then were really that the airport, in conjunction with whoever the airport owner was, were making decisions without any input from the airport adjacent communities who were being impacted.

[00:10:03] And then the late ’90s is when my firm took over the management of N.O.I.S.E. It effectively acts as one of my clients as a lobbyist, and then I started in 2007. The issues then were really about airport expansion, about new runways, about discussions about policy. There was not a lull, per se, but certainly there was nothing really galvanizing or central that folks were really focused on.

[00:10:31] So the real shift was when NextGen came into play and those new procedures started to impact people. 

[00:10:37] Carolyn McCulley: NextGen is the reason that people who never experienced airplane noise suddenly started hearing planes. Because of it, you don't need to live close to an airport to be disrupted by aviation noise. A very simple description of this change is that commercial aviation used to depend on a radar-based navigation system of waypoints.

[00:10:58] So, where planes could fly was much more limited. NextGen introduced satellite navigation, similar to the GPS navigation in your car. So suddenly, planes didn't have to follow the established routes in the old radar system. And that's why many people heard planes overhead for the first time. Here's Vianair’s Jim Allerdice to explain it.

[00:11:19] Jim: So NextGen, it's anything and everything that has to do with improving the air traffic control infrastructure. It involves communications, it involves surveillance, it involves navigation. So the piece of NextGen that we're talking about is PBN, performance based navigation. And the performance-based navigation is the satellite navigation that we're using today, GPS and RNP, that we use for the most accurate routes that the aircraft can fly.

[00:11:51] RNP is required navigation performance. I am a font of acronyms. So all of that is under the NextGen umbrella. It's more specifically under performance-based navigation. 

[00:12:03] Carolyn McCulley: But still, NextGen is the name that stuck for most of us. Its formal name is the Next Generation Air Transportation System. It's an FAA program to modernize the National Airspace System.

[00:12:16] The FAA began to work on NextGen back in 2007 and plans to finish by 2030. NextGen uses satellite-based guidance to improve air traffic control routes, deliver fuel savings to airlines, and increase efficiency in congested airspace. But it is the performance-based navigation part of NextGen that upended decades of local land use plans.

[00:12:47] Remember the Dulles Airport noise map that I researched before I purchased my home? That's where the airport planned for aircraft to fly back in the early ’90s. Noise maps to the flight paths. But by the time I purchased my home at the end of 2019, that noise map was nearly 30 years old and years out of date for where the planes actually flew as NextGen was introduced.

[00:13:10] Plus, the bulk of the flights off the runway closest to where I live are evening and overnight flights. So when I was out at this new development, walking the lots and meeting with the sales reps during the day, I didn't hear many flights. Later, I learned a term called departure banks. That's a 60-to-90-minute period where a push of flights takes off.

[00:13:32] Then, here at Dulles Airport, it switches to the arrival banks, and the arrival banks take over at another set of runways, which are not as close to me. Not every airport operates this way, but this is how Dulles does it. So I assume, therefore, that my sales meetings were wisely set during the arrival banks.

[00:13:49] Oh, and a pro tip here. If you can choose, it's much better to live near the arrival runway and not the departure runway. Planes power down to land, but they are at full roar to take off.

[00:14:08] But, back to noise maps and land use. Most municipalities—cities, counties—plan years in advance to develop certain areas. They design neighborhoods, schools, and roads with a comprehensive plan in mind. The airport's noise map helps those local leaders make decisions for what's called compatible land use planning.

[00:14:29] But after decades of careful calibration to avoid putting homes in the flight paths of nearby airports, NextGen came along with an entirely different goal. And that goal was to make the airspace system more efficient. But in doing so, they overlooked the people on the ground and blew up decades of land use planning.

[00:14:54] Emily: Not engaging ahead of time with communities has been an Achilles heel for NextGen. I remember very clearly, I started to get calls from residents at the time, language like, we thought we were being invaded, and it was just brand-new noise one day. Never had they ever had any noise. And N.O.I.S E. members are impacted by NextGen. That is the common thread.

[00:15:16] Carolyn McCulley: At this point, it's important to understand NextGen from an aviation professional's viewpoint. Because the modernization of NextGen was a point of pride for the FAA and the air traffic controllers who use it. Here's Jim Allerdice to explain it from his experience. 

[00:15:32] Jim: So, again, NextGen is a generic overarching term, and what I would say is the piece of the NextGen that affected people was the performance-based navigation.

[00:15:46] When you took aircraft that were on headings that were dispersed and they were flying all over the sky, or even in certain areas where you would assign certain headings to aircraft departing an airport and they were affected by wind, there was some track variability there. The airplanes would be a little left one day, a little right the next day, that kind of thing.

[00:16:10] With performance-based navigation, it narrowed those corridors down a lot. So, what would happen is, if you went out one day, and you looked up from your house, and the airplane was over there off to the left, and the next day, the wind shifted, and you went out, and you looked up, and the airplane was off to the right. But then after NextGen, it didn't matter what the wind was doing.

[00:16:32] They were dead over your house every day. That's what happened. And the people that got stuck under those concentrated tracks are the ones that were the most adversely impacted. 

[00:16:46] Carolyn McCulley: Yes, I have experienced those concentrated tracks, and they are no fun at all, especially at bedtime. That's a topic we will explore in an upcoming episode—how aviation noise affects your sleep and your health.

[00:16:59] But, the week I started production on this episode, I filed 219 noise complaints. That was a really bad week because those concentrated flight tracks were over my home for several days. It's not always that way, but when it is happening, it's relentless.

[00:17:18] More on that in another upcoming episode all about the science of measuring aviation noise. For now, let's learn another aviation acronym, RNAV.

[00:17:28] Jim: RNAV stands for Area Navigation. When I came in, in 1984, you had to, you know, issue headings and everything like that on your own. Now, with RNAV, a lot of the workload is taken off the controller because the pilots just follow this predetermined path.

[00:17:48] Even the aircraft at higher altitudes, on the downwinds, they were right slap in the same place every time. 

[00:17:55] Carolyn McCulley: So, my fellow grammar nerds may be puzzling their puzzlers right now, trying to figure out how RNAV is an acronym for Area Navigation. Don't question it, just go with it. RNAV, Area Navigation, and RNP, Required Navigation Performance, are the two main procedures used in PBN, the performance-based navigation part of NextGen.

[00:18:20] So, a very simple way to think about it is that RNP allows for even more narrow and precise flight paths than even RNAV does. Both create concentrated flight tracks and a good bit of misery for the people who live under them. But for the airline industry and the FAA, they are very efficient planning tools.

[00:18:42] Jim: When I got to Atlanta, for instance, I got there in 1991. It wasn't until 2000 or actually 2005, before we actually started implementing RNAV. I can tell you that was one of the things that was kind of a selling point to the airlines in the very beginning of performance-based navigation was the repeatability.

[00:19:03] So now if their route is more predictable, which it became with PBN, the airlines are like, cool, it better allows us to manage our fleet, manage our fuel burn, manage our passenger loading. So the repeatability of these routes was huge to the airlines. They were like eating it up when they got that thing.

[00:19:25] Nobody foresaw the impact that it was going to have to folks on the ground. At least nobody down at my level. It was not intuitive to us that that was going to make a difference. So there was a lot of appeal to air traffic controllers. There was a lot of appeal to the airlines and the pilots for PBN. 

[00:19:48] And the impact to the people on the ground, if somebody had thought about that in advance, they didn't communicate it to us. We were just looking at the efficiency standpoint. And, and I personally, I can tell you, you know, 2010, 2015, that timeframe, I wasn't thinking about that. Wasn't thinking about it at all. And, and I would say that 99. 9 percent of air traffic controllers were not. Because that's just not how we're wired.

[00:20:15] We're wired to be safe, and we're wired to be efficient. And the noise thing was ancillary to anything that we did.

[00:20:31] Carolyn McCulley: NextGen is a multibillion dollar program that is one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects in U.S. history. But it's just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding our noisy skies. How aircraft noise affects our health, what new laws and court cases might change aviation noise, why the FAA itself is reviewing civil aviation noise for the first time in 40 years, what's coming with new aviation technologies—all these topics and much more will be explored in future episodes of Noisy Skies.

[00:21:10] The factors that contribute to aviation noise are a complex system, but we've got an entire podcast series to learn about it from multiple perspectives.

[00:21:18] Thanks to today's guests for being part of this episode, Jim Allerdice of Vianair and Emily Tranter of N.O.I.S.E. I met each of them as I researched solutions for my own community. Our local effort is still ongoing and more of our story will be in future episodes. But I'm doubly thankful for their time then, and now with this podcast.

[00:21:41] Noisy Skies is a production of The Aloft Group. It is hosted and edited by me, Carolyn McCulley. Aloft draws on decades of aviation experience to help communities navigate the complexity of aviation noise. To learn more about how The Aloft Group can help your community, visit Thanks as well to our show's Founding Patrons:

[00:22:05] Edward Bursk, Kim and Janet Hannemann, Andrea and Joe Dulik, Jim and Susan White, Christina Conti, John Yeatman, Julia Falk, Cheri and Marc Korstvedt, John and Catherine Fraga, Chris Loeser, Ted and Gayle Deeley, Chris McCann, Kathy Estep, Charles Lamb, and Val Sekhar. Got questions or comments for the show? We'd love to hear from you.

[00:22:30] Drop us a line at And join me next time wherever you get your favorite podcasts. Thanks for listening.