Plane noise and NextGen: what you need to know

Advocacy groups urge residents to remain vigilant and continue complaints


The plane noise plaguing parts of Queens and Nassau counties was the focus of discussion last week at a citizen advocacy meeting to explain NextGen, a satellite GPS technology that the Federal Aviation Administration says has resulted in $1.6 billion in benefits to airlines and travelers by allowing planes to fly more frequently and closer together, take more direct routes and save time and fuel.

The meeting was organized and chaired by Malverne resident Elaine Miller, who co-founded the advocacy group Plane Sense 4 Long Island. Speakers included Janet McEneaney, an attorney and the founder of Queens Quiet Skies; Dr. Arline Bronzaft, an environmental psychologist who helped rewrite New York City’s noise code; and Tanya Lukasik and Richard Watkins, founders of Open Nassau, a nonprofit focusing on issues that negatively affect local communities.

In an emailed statement, the FAA stated that NextGen is modernizing the nation’s air traffic control system to make it even safer, greener and more efficient. “Over 7,000 satellite-based procedures are operating in our skies today,” the statement read, and “[NextGen] and other satellite navigation systems reduce air traffic delays, improve efficiency, reduce the amount of fuel aircraft use, and reduce carbon emissions.”

Last week’s meeting, however, focused on several issues that have arisen since the system was introduced:

Government Funding: McEneaney stated that JetBlue Airways was given nearly $5 million by the FAA to test the NextGen technology in 2012.

Double the Airplane Traffic: Prior to NextGen, “airplanes used to be spaced five miles apart, wing to wing and back to front,” McEneaney said. “Now they’ve got it down to 2½ miles apart, so you can understand that will double the traffic.”

A ‘Superhighway in the Sky’: “If you’re living under a flight path,” Lukasik said, “you’re under a superhighway in the sky.” Because technology rather than people controls NextGen, the planes consistently fly in set patterns, forming what Lukasik called a “conga line” of planes that repeatedly travel over the same areas.

A Congressionally Approved ‘Categorical Exclusion’ from Environmental Impact: When a federal agency implements a program, it must adhere to the laws of the National Environmental Policy Act, which ensures that all government branches give proper consideration to the environmental impact of any major federal action. According to McEneaney, however, in 2012, NextGen was given a “categorical exclusion” to NEPA, allowing it to skirt this environmental protection law.

The Community Roundtable: In November 2013, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to organize a community roundtable to address the issue of airplane noise. According to Kevin Denning, who heads the Town-Village Aircraft Safety & Noise Abatement Committee, the New York Community Roundtable has met formally only once, and has produced nothing of significance thus far. Cheryl Ann Albiez, a spokeswoman for the Port Authority, claimed it has met 10 times.

Asked about its efforts to reduce plane noise, an FAA official who declined to be identified said that the airspace above the New York metropolitan area is the most complex in the world, and that the agency uses all available runways for its air traffic operations based on factors ranging from wind direction to runway availability to surface conditions to anticipated air traffic.

Speakers at last week’s meeting called on attendees to continue registering complaints to public officials and the FAA, as they feel their efforts are finally attracting elected officials’ attention.

Open Nassau, a nonprofit started by Lukasik in July 2015, now has about 2,600 members. Lukasik said that its goals regarding the plane noise include the creation of a countywide coalition on plane noise and abatement; a flight pattern complaint app, which would allows a user to point an iPhone at a plane and determine its altitude and noise level; improved collection and analysis of plane patterns and data; and educational programming.

As part of her presentation, Lukasik discussed the city of Phoenix, which is currently involved in litigation with the FAA over plane noise. Before implementation of NextGen, flight patterns were dispersed throughout the city. Since NextGen was instituted in 2012, flights follow a distinct pattern that affects certain neighborhoods consistently and constantly, she said — similar to the New York metropolitan area.