Airplane-Noise Annoyances in South Minneapolis

With more than 430,000 flights cruising in and out of Minneapolis–St. Paul International each year, airplane noise is a major headache. And even though the hub fields about 100,000 fewer annual takeoffs and landings than it did a decade ago, proposed changes to flight paths continue to fuel debate about the planes’ roar.

When Minneapolis resident Kevin Terrell was searching for the perfect place to build his dream home in 2006, he spent a lot of time looking to the sky before settling on a relatively quiet spot about four miles from the airport in the Lynnhurst neighborhood. But in 2012, he and his neighbors grew concerned when the Federal Aviation Administration proposed implementing technology that would allow departing planes to fly much closer together out of MSP and concentrate them in two zones: the airspace just north of Highway 62 (mainly impacting Tangletown, Lynnhurst, Fulton, and Edina) and a stretch over Kingfield, East Harriet, and East Calhoun.

Nationwide, the FAA has been rolling out the system, called RNAV, because it’s safer and more efficient, accommodating more planes and saving fuel. But the change in departures would shift the burden of air–traffic noise in southwest Minneapolis, resulting in fewer residents being impacted by noise, but with those people experiencing it to a greater degree. Some areas that currently experience the equivalent of “residential” air streets overhead would see the airspace above turn into virtual freeways. According to Terrell’s calculations, implementation of RNAV for departures would boost the number of planes flying over his neighborhood from an average of 25 to 135 daily.

His research led him to co-found a citizen advocacy organization called the MSP FairSkies Coalition that quickly rallied thousands of signatures and support from local politicians. As a result, last February, the Metropolitan Airports Commission decided to forgo MSP’s implementation of RNAV. But debates continue as evidence accumulates suggesting that chronic exposure to airplane traffic can cause negative health consequences that go beyond nuisance effects.

In two of the most comprehensive studies, published simultaneously in 2013, one group of researchers analyzed Medicare data on more than six million people over the age of 65 living near airports across the United States. The other group considered the health outcomes of 3.6 million London residents near Heathrow airport. The studies used different methods but came up with similar results: The closer people lived to airports, the higher their rates of hospitalization and death from heart disease. The results merit further study, researchers say, especially as past studies have linked airplane noise to sleep disruptions, increased blood pressure, and stress.

Since the 1980s, the FAA has considered a weighted 24-hour average of 65 decibels to be the noise level at which residents should become eligible for government-paid soundproofing efforts, such as central air conditioning, wall insulation, and new windows. (In some areas of the Twin Cities, 60 dB is the threshold for remediation benefits.) But many advocates argue that the threshold should be dropped to 55 dB, as studies have shown health concerns can begin to arise at this level. (A decrease of 10 dBs halves the sound’s loudness; 55 dBs is approximately the noise level in a restaurant). With the implementation of RNAV for departures, all of southwest Minneapolis and parts of Edina would lie within the 55-dB zone.

About 20 years ago, officials turned down a proposal to move MSP just outside the Twin Cities, prioritizing convenient access for the metro core over improving noise-related quality-of-life for residents of some of the most dense and desirable regions of the Cities. Now, with continuous talk of expansion at MSP, advocates are looking for new strategies to make barbeque seasons of the future more enjoyable in under-the-flight-path backyards. One idea is to relocate FedEx planes and other commercial air traffic to airports in places including St. Cloud and Rochester, which would create other logistical complications but could help boost economies in those places while lessening noise in the Cities.

Should the FAA decide to pursue implementation of RNAV departures at MSP in the future, leadership has said it will undertake a community engagement plan requested by MAC. Due to concerns about air noise’s immediate and long-term impacts, those living under the flight paths will make sure their voices are heard as loudly as the roar of engines overhead.