ANALYSIS: Three Decades of Aviation Noise Politics May be Bracing for Impact

The news this year has been abuzz with Aviation Noise articles, and it does not appear to be slowing down.

Yesterday, U.S. District Court Judge Judith LaBuda heard closing arguments in a Boulder, CO trial, where impacted residents are seeking relief from the noise of Mile-Hi Skydiving Center, operating out of Longmont’s Vance Brand Airport [KLMO].

On the East Coast and the West Coast (in East Hampton, NY, and in Santa Monica, CA), citizens have ‘Just Said No’ to FAA grants for decades to get out from under ‘grant obligations’ and try to regain local control of their airports. They are now working diligently to finish their trek, to ensure local officials will not cave to late pressures from FAA and the industry. For once, they hope to see their local officials act to manage aviation noise and preserve ‘quality of life’. At East Hampton [KHTO], residents want relief from noisy commuter helicopters. At Santa Monica [KSMO], the biggest noise offender is also commercial, in the form of charter jets using a too-short runway, and also spraying soot and jet blast onto neighboring homes.

And, of course, there are the ongoing (and growing!) NextGen debacles impacting hundreds of thousands of sleep-deprived residents. Phoenix, Chicago, and New York have generated lots of big stories; Charlotte, Minneapolis, Seattle, Boston, Palo Alto, … the list will grow on. At each impacted community, millions of taxpayer dollars are used by FAA to attractively (and fraudulently) ‘green-wrap’ the debacle, and always stated as ‘in collaboration with industry stakeholders’. And, in case you missed it, FAA even wished everyone a Happy Earth Day!

Lots of news, but very little progress. Such is the politics of FAA and aviation noise.

Censorship in Colorado

As an example of how intensely political aviation noise is becoming, a conservative-leaning paper in Longmont recently censored out a reader comment. The paper, TimesCall.com, has generally been doing an excellent job of covering the citizens’ lawsuit against aviation operator Mile-Hi Skydiving. And their articles provide a ripe forum for people to express their views. As has come to be the standard in today’s online forums, the views are hugely polarized and sometimes downright rude and uncivil.

So, here’s a short overview of what happened at TimesCall.com. A person using the tag ‘JustSayinEP’ (Estes Park?) had made a comment which was promptly deleted by the website administrator. But, before the deletion, another person using the tag ‘Querty123’ responded, questioning if ‘JustSayinEP’ was threatening to use a rocket launcher to shoot down the main offending Mile-Hi Skydiving airplane, the loud white/purple Twin Otter. ‘JustSayinEP’ then promptly replied, and within his reply noted the content TimesCall.com had censored. To their credit, TimesCall.com did not censor this follow-up. Thus, we are all able to plausibly reconstruct their justification for the censorship. Here’s a screen-capture showing the comment thread (orange-box added by aiReform.com):

(click on image to read original article and reader comments at TimesCall.com)

(click on image to read original article and reader comments at TimesCall.com)

The censored comment included lyrics from Bruce Cockburn’s 1984 song about oppression in Guatemala, ‘If I had a Rocket Launcher’. The opening stanza of the song lyrics includes, “Here comes the helicopter, second time today, everybody scatters and hopes it goes away, how many kids they’ve murdered only God can say….” The second stanza includes, “I don’t believe in guarded borders and I don’t believe in hate, I don’t believe in generals or their stinking torture states….” See the full lyrics here; the song is short and simple, and the lyrics webpage has lots more information about how the song came to be written.

Here are two embedded YouTube videos. Take your pick (or, better, listen to both). The first is the video at the link posted by ‘JustSayinEP’, which has video images showing the human face in Guatemala; the second video is an acoustic version, on a stage in Canada, that many find more artistically impressive:

Both videos present a great song. This song is NOT intended to stir up violence. It is clearly intended to stir up PEOPLE, to get us to CARE ENOUGH to take non-violent action, to right an obvious wrong. As Bruce Cockburn explained about his new song, in a late 1984 interview, “this is not a call to arms. This is, this is a cry….”

A cry. In 1984, and again in 2015.

Which is why it seems surprising that TimesCall.com would see fit to censor it.

The Politics Go Back to Ronald Reagan

The deeper story gets into politics, and reveals some of the oppressive dark-side of aviation. Mr. Cockburn wrote this song more than thirty years ago, early in the Reagan Administration. Two of the biggest presidential moves on aviation were done by President Reagan in 1981. In August, he fired most of the FAA air traffic controllers, for their strike, an action that still resonates with labor today. Earlier in the year he had persuaded Congress to support his proposal to shut down the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC) at EPA, an action hugely relevant to the NextGen implementation debacles.

That was Reagan’s first year, 1981. In early 1982, in Central America, General José Efraín Ríos Montt staged a military coup and became President of Guatemala. He had distant support from a few other nations, including the Reagan administration, and he used aviation as perhaps his most powerful tool of oppression. Bruce Cockburn visited the Guatemalan refuge camps in the Mexican state of Chiapas, during the Montt dictatorship. He saw the way helicopters routinely ignored national borders to fly menacingly over and sometimes fire into refugee camps. An avowed pacifist, he was outraged by the inhumane oppression he saw, so he wrote this song. And, thankfully for the Guatemalan people, the presidency of General Montt was short-lived; it ended in August 1983.

Mr. Cockburn’s song does a fantastic job of illustrating the simple fact that people who are oppressed need relief from their oppression. No matter how peaceful people are, if a state of oppression is sustained, it is only right to stand firm and resist. The individual standing against oppression was once at the heart of our national identity. If the oppressor denies the oppressed effective recourse, in due time some may feel compelled toward violent action to retake their freedom. We took up arms against the British, and that crystallized our national identity. We all want to avoid violence, which is why we want to believe we have an open press and deliberative Courts, the essential nonviolent venues for maintaining civility. But history has shown, if the press and the Courts fail, peace too will soon fail. Thus, we MUST have a strong press and reliable Courts, openly covering the NextGen noise debacles, and justly deciding cases like the one in Boulder.

In the big picture, if we truly want a happy and peaceful world, we have to start with preserving basic quality of life, which includes vigorously guarding against oppression.

Noise is oppression.

Noise is oppression. Not as horrific and potentially lethal as an armed helicopter, but still oppressive. And bureaucratic inaction, as FAA consistently shows, doesn’t just frustrate the noise-oppressed; it also scuttles their chance for relief from other venues, such as when Courts reflexively defer to FAA, ON THE ASSUMPTION THAT FAA IS DOING ITS LEGISLATED DUTY. Which, by the way, FAA is NOT.

For reasons unknown, FAA has completely abandoned their federal responsibility to manage aviation noise. Some would conclude it is easily explained, if you simply understand that FAA today is a captured regulatory agency, existing solely to serve the industry.

In essence, the only difference between an aviation lobbyist and an FAA official in Washington is that the latter is still making small contributions into their federal retirement pension. So, as it stands today, if the airlines want political cover to add a few more million in annual profits by making early turns to climb out over Phoenix and Flushing, FAA provides that cover. Complaining citizens are just beaten down and ignored.

Today’s Noise Politics: On a Collision Course?

Today, NextGen noise is Oppression, and FAA is the intransigent Oppressor. Near NextGen airports, where new procedures are being implemented without needed environmental reviews and citizen input, ‘We the People’ are now ‘We the Oppressed’.

The current situation has become so untenable that in New York, U.S. Representative Grace Meng is advocating for a different agency to take over where FAA is failing. She wants to mend some of the errors of 1981, by resuming funding for the Office of Noise Abatement and Control (ONAC). And she wants EPA to run it, because, as she says, “(FAA) has failed to convince me and the public that it can objectively handle the problems caused by noise pollution. The EPA is better suited to study the consequences of noise pollution and propose measures to ameliorate this ongoing problem….” The proposal is presented in Congresswoman Meng’s 4/30/2015 letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.

Her concerns are echoed in Arizona Senator John McCain’s 4/30/2015 letter to Administrator Huerta, seeking resolution of the Phoenix NextGen debacle.