The coronavirus pandemic has sparked unforeseen complaints from residents neighboring Scottsdale Airport who say flight noise is worse than ever even though fewer planes are flying.
“This noise pollution continues unabated, the neighbors are hopping mad, and we want the City Council to step up and stop this nuisance,” according to a citizen petition to City Council filed by resident James Bloch on May 4.
Bloch said small planes are “circling for hours,” creating a nuisance for residents.
“The small aircraft circling overhead is now ruining my life here,” said Marge Hasslinger, who has lived near Hayden Road and Princess Drive for seven years.
“No more serene desert early mornings. No more open patios and windows to catch the desert sounds and beauty,” Hasslinger said. “At 6 a.m., I leash up the dog for that first walk and am met with three planes circling overhead, low and loud.”
The complaint comes as overall activity is down at the airport due to reduced flights in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to an FAA database, total activity at Scottsdale Airport dropped from 17,131 flights in March 2019 to 16,071 flights in March 2020.
There were 15,592 total flights last month – nearly 1,000 fewer than in April 2019.
Bloch and Hasslinger are likely hearing noise from trining flights, which have increased, according to airport spokeswoman Sarah Ferrara. She told Bloch in an email: “Since the pandemic, corporate traffic has declined and as a result flight training companies are operating more at the airport.”
The airport hosts at least six flight schools.
Guy Milanovits of Scottsdale Executive Flight Training said his flights are down but he has noticed more activity at other schools.
“We are operating at less capacity than would be normal due to the virus outbreak (but) we only train local business people/clients so we may be different,” Milanovits said. “I have noticed the contract schools have increased their training, but I’m not sure why.”
While the training flight pattern hasn’t changed in recent years, data suggest training operations have increased in recent weeks.
“These are operations conducted near the airport runway to practice takeoffs and landings – they are done in a circular /rectangular pattern…This flight pattern has not changed and has been in existence for many years,” Ferrara said.
According to the FAA database, “local” flights – which can include training operations and local private owners – have increased at Scottsdale Airpark the last two months.
Local flights in Scottsdale jumped from 5,980 in March 2019 to 7,017 in March 2020, a 17 percent increase. In April, there were 8,587 local flights in Scottsdale, a 23 percent increase over April 2019.
But the airport received 197 noise complaints last month – down from 308 in April 2019.
That did come after a spike in complaints in March, though, when the airport received 242 complaints, up from 216 in March 2019.
Bloch and Hasslinger have complained that flight noise begins at 6 a.m. and continues throughout the day.
Bloch said the issue is particularly noticeable when he walks his dog at the soccer fields at Hayden and Bell roads.
“I do not know what is going on, but it is now going from bad to terrible. It now is several consecutive days of this noise starting at sunrise,” Bloch said.
But it’s unclear what, if anything, the city or airport can do to stop it.
Regulation of airports and aircraft is tangled in a bureaucratic web that spans from local governments to the Federal Aviation Administration, and Scottsdale can’t do much without FAA approval.
In many cases, local airports are handcuffed by the FAA, which imposes certain obligations on public airports – including Scottsdale – that receive federal grant funding.
Those obligations, or grant assurances, forbid limiting the type of flight activity at an airport.
“Scottsdale Airport, as a public airport, must be available for public use without unjust discrimination to all types of aeronautical activities and be available for use 24 hours per day, seven days per week,” Ferrara said.
But Bloch said the pilots are “just playing around at 1,000 feet as (if) they owned the playground, as if they owned the airspace.”
Ferrara said that the airport has no authority to govern flight paths and that the increase in activity is tied to normal training activity.
“I checked into the date and times you referenced in the Public Vue flight tracking system and most of the flight operations are from flight training operators doing pattern work or touch-and-gos,” she told Bloch.
Scottsdale prohibits touch-and-go flights between 9:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. but there are no rules the rest of the day.
Bloch’s petition asked the Council “to enforce the designated flight paths from Scottsdale airport.”
But it is still unclear if the noise is the result of pilots actually deviating from the path or simply an increase in activity as Ferrara suggested.
Ian Gregor, an FAA spokesman, said the FAA does not have regulatory authority over the frequency of training flights but that the agency would investigate complaints of aircraft not adhering to flight paths.
“Airport traffic patterns are strictly defined in terms of routes and altitudes, and do not generally change except for safety reasons,” Gregor said. “If the FAA receives a report about unsafe flying, we will investigate.”
Even if the City Council were to act on Bloch’s petition, it would need FAA approval to adopt and enforce further noise mitigation efforts.
That’s because airports are required by the FAA to conduct ”an extensive analysis of the costs and benefits of the proposed restrictions,” Ferrara said.
Those studies can be costly and time consuming and there is no guarantee of success.
For example, the Burbank Airport conducted a Part 161 study from 2000 to 2009 at a cost of $7 million in an attempt to impose a mandatory nighttime curfew on flights.
The FAA decided that the “study did not justify the imposition of the mandatory curfew,” according to Burbank Airport.
Ferrara said it is unlikely the airport would qualify for federal funding for the study because there are no homes in the “65 DNL noise contour,” an area where the average day-night sound level from aircraft noise does not exceed 65 decibels.
That’s the threshold decibel level at which the FAA considers flight activity not compatible with residential uses.
“Because there are no residential impacts within the 65 DNL noise contour, federal funding is not available for such a Study and FAA approval of restrictions would be unlikely,” according a Scottsdale Airport noise study.
At this point, all the city can do is collect complaints and work with the FAA under an existing noise-abatement plan – something that is unlikely to appease residents. That plan makes few references to flight training operations directly, other than some existing restrictions Scottsdale has in place – including the touch-and-go limit and a prohibition on stop-and-go operations by multi-engine aircraft.
Those restrictions were adopted in the 1980s and 1990s and “grandfathered” in with FAA approval.
The plan also encourages pilots of single-engine craft to adopt noise awareness steps from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, but includes no requirements that they do so.
The overall plan includes dozens of steps to abate noise caused by airport activity, but does not include limitations on flight training activity.