Photo credit: Pedro Aragão licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

By David Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

People who live near airports have struggled with noise for over 50 years. The first attempts to address this problem began in 1967, literally 50 years ago! But frankly, there’s been more progress on this issue outside the U.S., where, for example, the World Health Organization has addressed the burden of disease from environmental noise and the European Union has established night noise guidelines for Europe.

Meanwhile, here on American soil, the struggle continues with groups like the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus and regional Quiet Skies groups experimenting with different approaches. A variety of strategies have been tested with varying success: petitions, fines, law suits, noise curfews, legislation, even complete airport shutdowns. Every American community that has confronted this issue realizes it’s a tough, long, uphill battle against powerful regulatory agencies and corporations that are more committed to commerce than to public health and welfare.

So, why can’t Boeing or somebody just make a quiet aircraft?

Actually they can—that is, the EU conglomerate Airbus canand already does. And the world’s largest passenger airplane, also made by Airbus–the A380–is the quietest both inside and out. So this isn’t a technological problem. Rather, aircraft engineers, manufacturers (other than Airbus), and the airlines that buy their planes, don’t seem to care about the impact of their products on those on the ground.

Interestingly, the quiet jet engine on the Airbus A320neo is made by the American company Pratt & Whitney.

Hooray! So why don’t U.S. airlines buy the A320neo equipped with its quiet jet engines? Wouldn’t this help to address the aircraft noise problem?

Good question.

For U.S. residents there’s also this good news: a new NASA program to develop quiet electric aircraft was recently announced, but the quiet electric aircraft are small propeller craft, so this is the kind of innovation you’ll see at smaller local airports in a few years.

What about helicopters? Can they make quiet helicopters too? The answer is yes again. Quiet, electric helicopters are also in development.

Conclusion? Maybe “technology substitution”–which works in other sectors–is the uniquely American way out of this dilemma.

At any rate, government-funded research and development (R&D) efforts by NASA and Pratt & Whitney demonstrate that somebody is listening! And in typical American fashion, it appears we will invent our way out of the airport noise mess by convincing the government to accelerate funding of both public and private sector R&D—from which entrepreneurs and business titans will reap rewards later.

At The Quiet Coalition and our host, Quiet Communities, we believe that local and regional anti-noise groups might have greater success if, in addition to the other strategies they’re already trying, they also emphasize “technology substitution.” This approach has worked well in cities and towns on issues like:

– leaf blowers and lawn mowers (convince your parks and recreation department to buy electric!);
– motorcycles (get them off Harleys and onto quieter electric motorcycles);
– appliances (the best-selling dishwasher these days is made in Germany and has become very popular worldwide because it’s quiet);
– air conditioning equipment (the best-selling household air-conditioning equipment is the quiet kind from Korea called “mini-splits” that were engineered to be quiet); and
– outdoor concerts (where wireless headsets are replacing noisy outdoor concert venues).

So our tech-driven American approach to “progress” may eventually get us to a quieter end-state—but the emphasis is on eventually.

In the meantime, until quieter times arrive, those of us who live near airports will have to either continue wearing earplugs or maybe experiment with the new “smart earbuds” that are now available.

And don’t forget the final option: move to a quieter neighborhood where your house isn’t underneath a flight path! Because you might have to wait a while before the above solutions arrive.

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