A group that began seven months ago with a few people venting their complaints while eating at the Terrace Diner has evolved into a neighborhood movement, a force dedicated to making the Federal Aviation Administration and the Port Authority work for the residents of Northeast Queens to alleviate the noise and pollution from planes flying out of LaGuardia airport.
Approximately 200 people with similar frustrations attended the first Queens Quiet Skies community education meting on May 2 in the Bayside High School auditorium. While planes rumbled overhead, leaders and experts presented residents with legal and technical information and encouraged them to get more involved.
Many audience members complained about being woken up in the morning, not being able to hold conversations in their own homes, having to breathe noxious jet fumes, and feeling like the FAA and the Port Authority have taken advantage of them.
According to Queens Quiet Skies President and Community Board 11 member Janet McEneaney, the airlines are framing the issue as a choice between delays and congestion at LaGuardia Airport, causing further delays at airports around the country, or more noise for Queens residents.
Bob Whitehair, a former airport manager and pilot told the audience, “It doesn’t have to be this way. We can change the way things are done.”
Whitehair was a member of the first community aviation roundtable, which formed in San Francisco in 1981. Many airports across the country have roundtables in which elected officials and community members sit down with the FAA to voice concerns, discuss future plans and find solutions.
There has never been a roundtable in New York, so state Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), Assemblyman Ed Braunstein (D-Bayside), and Queens Quiet Skies have drafted a proposal to establish one for each airport.
“Residents of the community affected by aviation decisions have had no input into the decisions,” McEneaney said. “The decisions are made by the FAA and airline representatives. If we have a seat at the table and a voice in the decision-making, we can frame the issues as a win-win for everyone.”
Andy Rothman, a member of Community Board 11, cited the FAA Community Involvement Statement: “The public has a right to know about our projects and to participate in our decision-making process.”
Rothspin said that at a meeting in March Carmine Gallo, the FAA’s eastern regional administrator, denied the agency works for the airlines, but Rothspin presented a slide, listing all 25 members of the FAA NextGen Advisory Committee and the airlines they work for.
“The FAA is not here to protect our interests,” Rothspin said. “We need to tell them: This is our neighborhood, our community, you work for us and stop this crap that’s going on.”
He said that ultimately Gallo promised that the FAA would participate in an Airport Roundtable.
In order to have a seat at the roundtable, Queens Quiet Skies must register as a nonprofit corporation, McEneany said. Soon the organization will start collecting dues of $25 per family for a year to cover its costs.
In addition to forming a roundtable, Queens Quiet Skies wants the FAA to revisit its environmental review process.
The air traffic over Northeast Queens increased last summer, when the FAA simultaneously implemented two new programs. The Airspace Redesign is a program aimed at reducing delays by rearranging flight procedures. The other program, NextGen, uses new navigational technology and procedures to increase capacity and reduce costs for the airlines. The new technology concentrates flights over specific areas, since pilots are required to hit certain waypoints in the sky. The procedure, known as TNNIS, formerly a special operation during the US Open, routes planes over Northeast Queens.
Len Shaier, the president of Quietskies.net, described the annoyance and health impacts of living with constant loud noise. He named increased risk of stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease, which an audience member supplemented by shouting out “and insanity!”
According to Shaier, the National Environmental Protection Act requires the FAA to investigate the cumulative environmental impacts of the two programs, but the agency instead looked at them separately.
Additionally, its analysis was based on theoretical models, instead of actual noise monitors on the ground, he said. While most airports have about 20 to 30 noise monitors placed in nearby neighborhoods, JFK has ten, while LaGuardia only has four.
The FAA also used the categorical exclusion, or CATEX, approach to avoid environmental review, according to Shaier.
Rebecca Bratspies, a professor at the CUNY Law School who turned the issue into a project for her environmental law class, presented on the legal backdrop.
According to Bratspies, the FAA lists “air pollution,” “noise,” and “highly controversial” as grounds for categorical exclusions.
“When an agency declares that something is CATEX they’re done with NEPA,” Bratspies said. “That’s what happened here.” The FAA decided on the CATEX for testing increased use of TNNIS on Jan. 31, 2012, she said.
According to Bratspies, the impact and outcry should indicate to the FAA that it made a mistake and should not categorically exclude the Airspace Redesign and NextGen from undergoing environmental assessments. Bratspies predicts that if someone were to sue the FAA for segmenting the programs, the challenge would get past the “motion to dismiss stage,” but she said that she doesn’t know how a court would decide the issue.
“I would encourage all of you to become pen pals with the FAA and tell them they’re wrong,” Bratspies said. “There’s hope. There are legal things out there that can help you. You just need to get your voice heard.”
Shaier encouraged the audience to join the email list, tell their neighbors about Queens Quiet Skies, and report aircraft noise on the Port Authority website. He instructed residents to check off “too frequent,” since only one complaint can be filed at a time. He also directed people to look at PASSUR.com, which provides real- time flight information and to include the specific flight numbers in their complaints. He also told the audience to take noise readings with their smartphones.
Members of Queens Quiet Skies praised Avella and Braunstein for their leadership on the issue.
“Our state representatives have taken the lead and must stay proactive,” Shaier said. “They must encourage the Port Authority to do its part.”
Rebecca Sheen, an aide to Avella, compared a meeting with the FAA in September to being in a war room, up against an entourage of the agency’s agents. “They didn’t acknowledge the test. They said, ‘We’ve done all the environmental review we need to do and now we’re going to go ahead.’”
Avella and Braunstein are going to Washington D.C. to meet with the FAA, along with representatives Grace Meng (D-Bayside) and Steve Israel (D-Long Island), who have co-sponsored bills requiring the Port Authority to apply for noise mitigation funding.
Several audience members demanded to know what U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)are doing to help. Shaier denounced the pair as “useless” and the audience applauded in agreement.
“[The FAA] has been giving us nonsense and spin and hoping we’ll go away,” Braunstein said. “But we’re are not going to just go away. What’s going on right now is unacceptable.”