A Sample Letter to Congress, Seeking Help to Manage Excessive Skydiving Noise

Dear (your members of congress),

I’d like to ask for your help closing loopholes in the FAA re-authorization bill before it becomes law later this year. I’m aware of several GA airports around the country that are experiencing these problems (Longmont, CO, Molalla, OR, Cloverdale, CA, Chatham, MA, Tecumseh, MI, Oak Harbor, WA), and doubtless there are others.

There are several loopholes described below that are being exploited by unscrupulous operators at General Aviation (GA) airports. A trial in Boulder County, Colorado earlier this year brought these issues into sharp focus, and clearly documented how the system is being exploited for personal gain by a skydiving operator based out of Vance Brand Airport, an FAA grant-funded GA airport in a residential area of Longmont, CO. For your reference, I’ve attached the summary “Statements of Facts” for both the plaintiffs (link) and the defense (link) as well as the judgment of the court (link) to show how the “line of least resistance” interpretation of the FAA rules were used by the defense and the court to decide in favor of the skydiving operator with no room for accommodating the needs of local residents, and at great cost to the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods many of which are more than 5 miles away from the airport.

One of the biggest problems arises from some of the vague and ill-defined language in the FAA’s forty-year-old “1976 Aviation Noise Abatement Policy”, which states in part:

“Airport Proprietors are primarily responsible for planning and implementing action designed to reduce the effect of noise on residents of the surrounding area. Such actions include optimal site location, improvements in airport design, noise abatement ground procedures, land acquisition, and restrictions on airport use that do not unjustly discriminate against any user, impede the federal interest in safety and management of the air navigation system, or unreasonably interfere with interstate or foreign commerce.”

I think we could go a long way to preventing the problems I’ve described above if the FAA were required to make the following changes:

  1. The definition the FAA uses to classify operators at FAA grant-funded General Aviation (GA) airports as participating in “Interstate Commerce” is too broad and should be narrowed. Under the current definition, a skydiving operator that simply picks up a few jumpers in another state (who might just be friends rather than representing any substantive income-producing business for any particular state) and transports them back to home state for a few skydive jumps, fits the definition as participating in “Interstate Commerce” and gets the same protections and taxpayer support from the FAA as a major international carriers like United Airlines or Delta Airlines operating out of DEN, PHX, SFO, etc. This means that a Skydiving operator at a GA airport is also permitted to make the same level of noise and export it out over the surrounding rural neighborhoods many miles away, as are international carriers at international transportation hubs are allowed to do.
  2. The noise standard the FAA uses to determine when noise mitigation procedures must be enforced at FAA grant-funded GA airports or on operations originating from such airports should be more stringent than what it applies to international carriers at international transportation hubs. Under the current rules, even though GA airports are generally much closer to quiet residential areas (and often inside these areas) where people live and spend the majority of their weekend time in recreational activities, operators based out of these GA airports are allowed to generate and export the same level of noise over the surrounding residential neighborhoods as an international air carrier operating out of an international transportation hub. In the case of a skydiving operator, that noise can be almost constant and very irritating throughout the day from dawn to dusk, especially on weekends. This represents a serious degradation of quality of life in residential and rural areas often several miles away from the GA airport where the skydiving flights originate (here’s a shorted example of such a noise incident: https://youtu.be/FunL0FIKjVE). Imagine this happening for 3 – 4 minutes each time, more than 70 times a day as occurred recently over Altona, Colorado on May 30, 2015 – here’s a short video of what happened that day, a pattern examples here has occurred repeatedly since then: https://youtu.be/lBYOvxdjbzI.
  3. The FAA should not allow anyone wishing to start a skydiving or other new operation out of an FAA grant-funded GA airport to do so without any environmental impact review (particularly for noise pollution), and without any acceptance required from residents who live in quiet rural areas several miles away from the GA airport, and who’s quality of life would be destroyed by the noise exported from that GA airport. Furthermore, the FAA should place reasonable limits on the number of skydiving operations based out of a GA grant-funded airport, and on the maximum total number of skydiver jumps. Under the current rules, the FAA allows any new aviation operation at an FAA grant-funded GA airport to start up at any time without meeting any environmental or community acceptance requirements simply because the airport existed before the residential areas did, regardless of their distance for the airport, and with no consideration for the fact the residential areas may pre-exist that new class of aviation operations by many years (e.g. Skydiving, passenger service, parcel delivery, jet aircraft, etc.), and people bought into those neighborhoods without giving any authorization for their peace and quiet to be thus impacted.
  4. The FAA should clearly designate FAA grant-funded GA airport owners as being the responsible party for enforcing restrictions on noise pollution not only at the airport itself, but also on noise pollution caused by aircraft originating at their airport which then export that noise out over the surrounding neighborhoods several miles away. The current rules about who is responsible for such exported noise are vague and ambiguous and this allows endless finger pointing between the FAA and airport owners with the result is that no one takes responsibility and citizens who live in otherwise quiet rural areas outside the city limits of the city where a GA airport is located effectively have no protection against such noise pollution. In fact, skydive operators exploit this situation by minimizing their noise near the airport on take-off and landing, and reserving their noisiest activity of aggressive climbing until they are miles away from the originating airport and very likely in a different jurisdiction than the airport itself. Both the airport operator and the corresponding City Council both disavow responsibility once an aircraft has left the immediate environs of their airport, finger-pointing to the FAA instead, and the FAA in turn focuses on the airports themselves as that is the location where they apply their grant funds. The result is that residents rural arears distant from these airports are left with nowhere to turn, and the skydive operators know that.
  5. The FAA’s rules around grants of taxpayer funds to GA airports should clearly distinguish in their conditions of acceptance (grant assurances) between International transportation hubs (like DEN, PHX, LGA, ORD, etc.) and local GA airports. The current rules present an almost insurmountable barrier when it comes to adapting GA airport procedures to the needs of local communities surrounding those airports because the FAA’s grant assurances run for the life of the improvements the grants funded. This often means waiting as long as 20 years after discontinuance of FAA funding, before being able to regain the flexibility required to e.g. adopt noise regulations that are more reasonable for the local area. This is because such local rules are usually perceived by local authorities as having the potential to be blocked by the FAA which would require litigation costs to pursue. This leads to rule-making paralysis on the part of the local authorities (e.g. the airport owners) and consequent exploitation of the situation by unscrupulous operators who are thus free to grow their private gain at the expense of the quality of life of surrounding communities. In addition, the FAA should be required to accept repayment at any time of prior grants and the immediate return of full authority for rule-making to the local authorities. The current rules about repayment of grant funds and return of such authority after repayment are ambiguous, and lead again to paralysis on the part of local authorities, and also to litigation by the FAA even after grant funds have been repaid.
  6. All of the above conditions should apply to GA airports whether or not they are funded by the FAA.

The current FAA rules actually provide loopholes that serve to protect offenders and prevent the application and enforcement of reasonable noise standards for aviation operators. Many of these aviation businesses that create excessive community noise impacts are based at airports subsidized using federal air passenger taxes, and these taxes are paid by people flying through the large commercial airports. Thus, FAA is using our money to enable skydiving, air tour, and other recreational operators to generate large personal profits, while at the same time diminishing the quality of life for our neighborhoods.

To prevent these egregiously exploitative situations from perpetuating into the future, I would like to engage legislators to adjust the FAA reauthorization bill to require the FAA to:

  • Clearly acknowledge that GA airports are different from transportation hubs and that they require different, more stringent noise standards and related regulations
  • Restrain FAA from liberally defining local recreational aviation activities such as skydiving as “Interstate Commerce”
  • Develop a more meaningful and much lower noise limit for GA airports in or near residential and rural areas
  • Require a fair environmental impact and community consent process for all GA airports, before allowing any establishment or expansion of operations or the initiation of any new classes of operations, to include air cargo and/or air passenger service where there are more than three scheduled departures in a calendar day, or any skydiving and/or air tourism operations.
  • Clearly designate airport owners as the responsible parties for enforcing regulations on noise pollution created locally and exported to surrounding communities from their airports
  • Require the FAA to provide explicit examples of what it means by “action designed to reduce the effect of noise on residents of the surrounding area” and “restrictions …that do not unjustly discriminate against any user, …., or unreasonably interfere with interstate or foreign commerce”, together with explicit examples of where and how such actions can be enforced at GA airports without FAA objection
  • Apply more appropriate rules to FAA grant assurances for GA airports

Are these issues that you would be willing to add to your agenda for improving FAA performance? Would you please help fix these problems in the current FAA re-authorization bill?

Thank you for your assistance, and I look forward to hearing from you.

(your name and address)