Photo credit: frank longwill licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

by David M. Sykes, Vice Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Last month, we published a notice about the week-long conference hosted by the University of California Davis, the Aviation Noise & Emissions Virtual Symposium 2021. The conference took place from Monday, February 22, through Saturday, February 26th. The first day also marked the FAA’s separate webinar about the agency’s aviation noise research activities, preceded by a call for public comment, published in the Federal Register

What a refreshing rush of transparency and disclosure! Curious that it’s all happening just as a new Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, who now oversees the FAA, is taking the reins.

What the UC Davis conference shows, however, is that the 2018 FAA Re-Authorization Act has both an exciting upside—and a terrifying downside. The upside and the downside were both revealed in back-to-back sessions on Wednesday, February 24.

THE UPSIDE: The morning session revealed that Mathias Basner MD, PhD, MSc, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and president of the International Commission of Biological Effects of Noise*, has been awarded a grant by the FAA to lead “the largest study that has ever been conducted worldwide” of the effects of aviation noise on human health. The study will cover 77 US airports. Since Dr. Basner is an authority on this subject with decades of experience in the EU and the US, this is a very positive sign that the FAA is taking Congress’ 2018 stipulations seriously—though it took over two years just to make the announcement.

THE DOWNSIDE: An hour later, in the afternoon session attendees were given a glimpse of the “plague of locusts” that nested in the same FAA Re-Authorization Act signed by President Trump in October 2018. It’s what enthusiasts and promoters call “The Third Dimension,” aka Advanced Air Mobility or Urban Air Mobility, aka drone delivery services and “AirUber” or eVOTL air taxis. As one presenter, Alex Gersten, a subject-matter expert, pointed out, “this is a whole new transportation industry.”

If you’ve not been exposed yet to drones that are big enough to carry Amazon Prime deliveries, watch out. They’re big, and they’re not quiet. There are now drones big and powerful enough to carry 500 lb. packages. Drop 500 lbs on your roof by mistake and that’s heavy enough to go through the roof and land in your basement. Don’t be fooled into thinking that this will sound anything like the mosquito buzz of the toy drone your kid got for Christmas. A drone that can carry 500 lbs. is 8-feet wide and has eight rotors will not be quiet. That’s equivalent to a small helicopter—but driverless.

This is a problem. As Yolanda Wulff from the Community Air Mobility Initiative pointed out with a carefully-composed smile, “[t]here will be some level of undesirable impacts.” CAMI is a trade organzation based in Washington D.C. that was formed by stakeholders in Advanced Air Mobility.

Keep in mind that the U.S. already has 3,000 federally-funded airports, and another 5,000 general aviation airports that are eagerly hoping to launch “vertiports,” small bases for “AirUber” and Amazon Prime and other “new, low-altitude uses.” Furthermore, many new neighborhood vertiports are being planned on the roofs of commercial-buildings and residential buildings.

While we’re thrilled that “the largest study that has ever been conducted” of the health effects of aviation noise is getting underway and is being led by a MD, PhD experienced in public health from a respected research university, that study of 77 major airports will be quickly overrun by the plague of locusts taking off from 8,000+ other airports already scattered around the country.

Ready or not, here they come.

*Disclosure: members of Quiet Communities Inc. will be presenting ten papers at ICBEN’s conference at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm in June.