NEWSCLIP-2002-05-08: Steve Brown Testimony to a Congressional Subcommittee, re DC-area Aviation Noise


Chairwoman Morella, Representative Norton, Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for inviting me to testify on the issue of noise resulting from operations to and from the Washington metropolitan airports. As the Acting Associate Administrator for Air Traffic Services for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), I am responsible for managing the 35,000 Air Traffic Services employees who oversee the operation of the world’s largest air traffic control system. These 35,000 employees provide air traffic control through 579 facilities and maintain the National Airspace System (NAS) infrastructure.

One of the primary goals of the FAA is to enhance the efficiency of the air traffic system while at the same time, maintaining the highest standards of safety. We also maintain a strong focus on continuing to reduce the environmental impacts of aviation and on local communities’ quality-of-life concerns. On behalf of Administrator Garvey, I am pleased to explain why local communities may have been affected by increased aircraft noise due to the changes to air traffic procedures at Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA) and share the FAA’s plans to increase the efficiency and capacity of the NAS.

Recently, communities located near DCA have expressed concerns about noise from flights approaching and departing the airport. The FAA and several other Federal agencies collaboratively changed air traffic procedures for approaches and departures at DCA in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Together, we made this decision because of the unique security concerns regarding the surrounding Washington area.

The revised arrival and departure procedures following the terrorists’ attacks affected communities near DCA. The changes to air traffic procedures were necessary because of national security concerns. Consequently, noise abatement procedures that had been in place prior to September 11th were temporarily suspended to allow the safe and secure reopening of DCA. Instead of following the Potomac River when pilots approached the airport from the north, they were required to follow an electronic course, which took the aircraft in a straight line to the airport. Similarly, pilots departing to the north were required to intercept a course after takeoff that took the aircraft on a straight course for ten miles. Also, all north jet departures had to depart at a steep angle, which required more engine power and consequently made more noise.

However, on April 27, 2002, Secretary Mineta authorized flights at DCA to resume pre-September 11th flight paths. Today, noise abatement procedures that were in place prior to September 11th are used at DCA. In good weather, arrivals from north and departures to the north must follow the path of the Potomac River. Similarly, in good weather, all arrivals from the south and departures to the south are required to follow the river to or from the airport. Aircraft departing to the north decrease power once they reach 1,500 feet and maintain this decreased level of power for a distance of ten miles from the airport while continuing their ascent. Both the river course and decreased power reduce the aircraft noise impact on communities near DCA. In addition, although the airport is once again authorized to allow flights between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m., the aircraft for those flights must meet certain noise limitations in effect prior to September 11th.

Air traffic procedures in the Baltimore-Washington region will undergo additional changes in the near future for purposes of efficiency and safety. Currently, the FAA has started to redesign the nation’s airspace through a program we call the National Airspace Redesign (NAR). The NAR is a multi-year initiative to review, redesign and restructure the nation’s airspace to meet the rapidly changing and increasing operational demands on the NAS. The NAR will be completed for the entire country in 2006. Because of their central role in the system, we started in the New York and mid-Atlantic areas, including Washington, D.C., where we expect tangible benefits within four years.

The airspace in the Baltimore-Washington region is the fourth busiest airspace in the country. This region is served by five major airports: Baltimore Washington International Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, Ronald Reagan National Airport (DCA), Andrews Air Force Base, and Richmond International Airport. Currently, each of these airports has its own air traffic control tower and its own Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON) facility. A TRACON is one of three important types of air traffic control facilities. The first facility is one that all travelers recognize – the tower. The tower is located at an airport and controls traffic on the taxiways, runways, and aircraft approaching or departing the airport. The second facility is a TRACON. Air traffic controllers at a typical TRACON control aircraft that are approximately five to 50 miles from the airport. Although individual controllers are only responsible for a specific sector of airspace, they have the ability to view information on all aircraft within the jurisdiction of the TRACON. The third type of facility is an Air Route Traffic Control Center (Center). Generally, air traffic controllers at a TRACON “hand off” aircraft before they leave the control of the TRACON to a controller at one of the 20 Centers located across the country.

We believe that we can enhance the safety of the busy Baltimore-Washington airspace, and accommodate increased demands on capacity and efficiency of the air traffic system by implementing a two-part plan. First, we will consolidate the five regional TRACONs into one facility called the Potomac TRACON, and second, we will redesign the airspace for this region. In the Washington area, the existing level of traffic is not efficiently handled with the current airspace design. The last airspace redesign in the Baltimore-Washington region in 1987 was implemented when DCA was the busiest airport in the region and was based on the interaction of the five separate area TRACONs. Today, operations at Washington Dulles International Airport exceed those at DCA and operations at other nearby airports have significantly increased. The increased demand on capacity means that it is time for the FAA to change the way we control the airspace in this region.

The first part of our plan to update the Baltimore-Washington airspace, the consolidation of the five area TRACONs into the Potomac TRACON, will allow air traffic controllers to more efficiently manage their resources and equipment. The air traffic controllers at the new facility will have real-time information on all aircraft in the Baltimore-Washington region, rather than just aircraft in the area controlled by one of the regional TRACONs. This will make communication and coordination with other controllers in the Potomac TRACON more efficient, and will enable them to respond more rapidly to problems such as inclement weather that may necessitate changes to flight paths. We expect that the new TRACON will be completed by the end of 2002 and will be in full operation next year.

The Potomac TRACON consolidation presents the FAA with the opportunity to redesign the airspace in the Baltimore-Washington area, the second element of our airspace improvement plan for this region. The FAA is considering three possible airspace redesign options. The goals of the Washington area airspace redesign follow the goals of the NAR — to increase safety and efficiency with minimal impact to the communities on the ground. The procedures that FAA must follow to reach this challenging goal require us to examine environmental impacts such as noise levels, user costs and air traffic factors.

On February 14, 2002, the FAA issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) on the three proposed airspace redesign options. The DEIS addressed 19 impact categories, but focused heavily on noise levels within 75 nautical miles of the District of Columbia. We found that there will be no significant environmental impacts from the airspace redesign. Communities close to an airport will not be affected because none of the airspace redesigns alter existing noise abatement procedures or initial departure/final arrival procedures. However, communities further away from the airport may experience slight noise impact or relief because the redesign proposals allow some arriving aircraft to remain at a higher altitude and departing aircraft to climb to a higher altitude sooner.

In sum, Madam Chairwoman, we look forward to the improvements to safety and efficiency that the redesign of the Baltimore-Washington airspace will deliver next year. Although noise levels for communities within the approach and departure paths of area airports will not change as a result of the airspace redesign, we will continue to look for new aircraft technology that has the potential to reduce aircraft noise. In the meantime, noise from aircraft approaching and departing DCA will be similar to what it was prior to September 11th. In addition, the congressional mandate limiting the number of flights at DCA should assure Washington area residents that noise levels will not increase above pre-September 11th levels. We will also continue to keep the public informed regarding any changes we propose to air traffic procedures that may affect their communities, and welcome their feedback on our proposals to improve this region’s airspace.

This concludes my prepared statement. I would be happy to answer any questions at this time.

copied 3/30/14 from: