Do Arlington leaders really have their heads in the game and their hearts in the effort to protect county residents from bearing the brunt of noise emanating from jets using Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport?
Count Alice Doyle as one who thinks maybe not.
Doyle attended a recent County Board meeting to press leaders to “show stronger leadership” in efforts at the regional level to address flight-path noise. She and her neighbors in the Chain Bridge Forest and Arlingwood neighborhoods are destined to see more flights over their heads if the county does not step up and protect its turf, she said.
“Arlington County failed miserably,” she said, suggesting local leaders have merely been “half-tuned-in to the process.”
Not so, countered board member Libby Garvey, one of those tasked by her colleagues with keeping an eye on the noise situation.
“A lot of work is being done behind the scenes,” she said. “Everybody’s got the same goal – less noise – but how it’s going to work out is difficult. This is just a very difficult issue.”
Ultimate authority in setting flight paths and regulation of other noise issues at the airport falls to the Federal Aviation Administration, which can opt to listen to local recommendations or ignore them as it sees fit.
Currently, there are two efforts underway to connect with the FAA and influence its decision-making:
• In 2019, the Arlington and Montgomery County governments ponied up cash and hired a consulting firm to develop a noise-mitigation study. That group last met in July, but future meetings are in the pipeline, county officials say.
• Since 2015, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has been convening a community noise working group, which has held 45 meetings and issued 22 sets of recommendations to the FAA, the most recent in July. The body has representation from airlines and government officials in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Coming out of the most recent airports-authority meeting was a recommendation to shift to the west the “DARIC” waypoint, the spot at which aircraft coming into Reagan National from the north fix their approach.
That recommendation to move the point 0.44 miles from Glen Echo, Md., to near the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in McLean would result in more aircraft flying over single-family neighborhoods in Arlington, like the one Doyle lives in.
If that occurs, consider those neighborhoods to be the victims of that catch-all buzzword of the 21st century – “equity.”
“There aren’t that many people per square mile” in that part of North Arlington, Garvey said, so fewer would be impacted by the noise compared to how the current flight path directs aircraft.
As a result, those neighborhoods may be forced to take one for the regional team.
“We are not getting perfect results that everyone in Arlington loves,” Garvey acknowledged. “We’re working it as well as we can.”
But her colleague, Takis Karantonis, took a stance slightly more pugnacious than Garvey’s it-is-what-it-is response.
“We are fighting on various fronts,” he said. “We are really very focused on the issue.”
(The more aggressive stance of Karantonis could be attributed to the fact he’s on the Nov. 2 ballot, but the aircraft-noise issue is not one that has dominated the four-way race for County Board.)
The joint Arlington-Montgomery effort to address the issue included a community survey that drew more than 1,600 responses in 2020. Residents reported noise impacts all day long, but especially between 5 and 8 a.m. More than two-thirds of respondents said they found airplanes’ arrivals and departures equally disruptive.
(Most of those respondents had lived in their homes for at least 10 years, but it’s unlikely any actually pre-date the airport, which opened in 1941, or may have been in their homes before National began allowing jet service in 1966.)
The FAA has to contend with noise concerns from the public and their elected officials around nearly every major airport in the nation. But in D.C., there are added challenges, including airspace that is off limits for national-security reasons.
Its geographic proximity to the corridors of power has been a blessing to Reagan National and its passengers – but almost led to its demise. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush administration seriously considered shuttering the airport on national-security grounds.
Congressional pushback narrowly averted the closure from becoming a reality.
And while some residents angry about noise are loath to acknowledge it, the noise being emanated from modern-era jets is low compared to their predecessors, and likely will continue to decrease owing to engine technology. One need only take to Wikipedia for videos of 1950s-60s-era Boeing 707s or DC-8s, which not only spewed black exhaust in their wake but also roared in ways that make today’s jets sound like purring cats by comparison.
In normal (pre-pandemic) years, Reagan National sees about 25 million people transit through its terminals. Although traffic has rebounded from the depths of the COVID crisis, Reagan National remains one of the airports in the U.S. where traffic remains significantly down, owing to the lack of business/government travel and a reduction in tourism to the nation’s capital over the past 20 months.
Brian Trompeter contributed to this report.