Airport Noise

First published 31 May 2006.

Jeff Gray of the Globe and Mail has his knickers in a twist over what appears to be a less than energetic approach to airport noise management by two Toronto city councillors.  This despite the fact that the Greater Toronto Airport Authority has logged 1,548 noise complaints, 640 of them from Toronto residents.

Toronto’s two city councillors on the [Greater Toronto Airport Authority’s noise management] committee usually send their staffers instead of attending themselves. Toronto also lacks a citizen representative, since the city hasn’t developed a process to appoint one after the last one quit in 2004.

According to the committee’s minutes, Ms. Hall hasn’t attended any of the 12 noise committee meetings held since the election in November, 2003, but has sent an aide in her place seven times. Mr. Ford has attended only three meetings in person, but sent an assistant to the rest. There is no rule against sending a representative.

— Jeff Gray, “Noise committee rarely hears councillors. ”  Globe and Mail, 23 May 2006.

Damn those lazy municipal politicians, ignoring the plaintive cries of their constituents!  They were probably too busy cozying up to Big Business / Big Land Developers / Big Evil Schtick of the Week, right?  Get out the hankies as our intrepid reporter wraps up with the tearjerking human interest angle:

Larry Perlman, who lives near Finch Avenue West and Islington Avenue, said the noise of airplanes flying overhead makes his house shake. He said his complaints to the airport have gone nowhere, but acknowledged none of his neighbours seems to share his complaints.

He criticized Mr. Ford and Ms. Hall for not attending more committee meetings in person: “The question is, how seriously is it being taken?”

Jeff Gray, “Noise committee rarely hears councillors.”  Globe and Mail, 23 May 2006.

I can’t speak for your Etobicoke councillors Larry, but I have spoken to the noise management specialists at the GTAA.  They have built an airport noise monitoring system with 32 ground stations scattered across the approach and departure paths to Lester B. Pearson International.  They have adhered to the Transport Canada Noise Exposure Forecast System, a methodical approach to assessing long term annoyance due to aircraft noise.  The GTAA has even lobbied municipal governments to restrict residential zoning and development in the most noise-affected areas.

Why would an airport want to restrict the type of activity that goes on around it?  Former Toronto mayor John Sewell believes it’s just a blatant power- and land-grab by the evil, privately-owned capitalist oligarchy:

The GTAA also decided that it needed to control what was happening on the ground around the airport. Many people have more or less accommodated themselves to the fact that noise from the airport is allowed to spill over the whole northwestern part of the urban area, but the GTAA wants more. It asked the province in 1997 to pass a planning policy statement giving its interests predominance over those of nearby landowners. Of course, the province agreed.

Then it asked the city to freeze development on privately owned land in areas it thought might be affected by its operations. The area is defined by Noise Exposure Projections, and 30 NEP is set as the standard. That covers a large area including more than 10,000 homes (and 30,000 residents) and many commercial and industrial properties. As one landowner says, the proposal “allows a private corporation to infringe on our fundamental property rights.”

John Sewell, “Airport Land Grab
Eye, 21 June 2001.

Right then.  I know this is all very complex stuff — hard for mere mortals like a mayor and journalist to comprehend — but let me run a simplified version past you that might make sense.  Back when this territory was first colonised by Europeans, they set up towns all across southern Ontario wherever the land was bountiful and commerce and communication were not too onerous.  A hundred-odd years later some fellas invented the airplane, and not long after, aerodromes (a.k.a. airports) started springing up in or near population centres.  A couple decades after that, some other fellas perfected turbine engines, and the Jet Age was born.  Suddenly those litttle putt-putt-putt piston-engined airplanes gave way to metal behemoths cranking out some serious, high-pitched noise.  And unfortunately, some airports were located right next door to ordinary residents, who were none too happy about their very noisy neighbours.

Now most homeowners are not pilots and have no idea whose houses the airplanes get routed over on their way to landing at the local airport.  Fortunately, the government has figured a lot of it out for you, by way of standard terminal arrival patterns for pilots, and that Noise Exposure Forecast system I mentioned earlier.  The airport sets up a bunch of noise monitoring stations, then they measure the noise levels recorded by each station, average it all out, and figure out which areas around the airport are going to receive the loudest and most constant (read: most annoying) levels of noise.  These are then projected onto something called a NEF contour map, like the one below.

Figure 1. CYYZ Airport Operating Area
courtesy of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority


(click image to enlarge)

NOTE: Black dotted-line arrows indicate missed approach paths for various CYYZ runways.

The area around Pearson International Airport which will receive unpleasant noise levels (30-NEF or more) is shown by the red contour line.  The folks who run the airport do not want people to make their homes inside the red contour line, because they know the people will be unhappy about all the airplane noise, and then those people will phone up their city councillors and complain.  So the GTAA has pre-empted the development of any future complaints by getting the municipal governments to set aside an Airport Operating Area (show in the blue line) where new residential zoning is heavily restricted, if not forbidden.  Note that the blue line corresponds to the red line where noise levels will be unpleasant.  Also note that there is plenty of existing residential zoning inside this blue line.  Mr. Sewell can call it a land grab if he likes, but I call it “planning ahead”.

Beyond the 30-NEF line, the noise levels are not exactly tolerable on an ongoing basis.  Wanda used to live right outside the boundary and she can tell you that the aircraft noise factor is considerable.  If you want to be a conscientious home-buyer, find out where your local airport is, and then ask them to send you their NEF contour map.  If your home is inside the 30-NEF line, forget it (unless you are an aviation fanatic).  Based on Wanda’s experience I would even recommend staying outside the 25-NEF line.  Poor Larry Perlman at Islington and Finch is inside the 25-NEF line, and the noise still rattles his house — probably every three and a half minutes, depending on how ATC spaces the traffic.  Restricting residential zoning seems very nanny-state-ish at first, but then the GTA’s experience has shown that the average homebuyer has to be protected from him/herself.  They will never in a million years guess that airplanes might be flying over their prospective home on the way to or from the airport, even if it is tens of kilometers away.  The continuing existence of Meadowvale, despite 30-odd years of airport noise complaints, is a living testament to this fact.

Finally, in all fairness to Councillors Rob Ford and Suzan Hall, there’s not much they can realistically do about the noise.  Contrary to Mr. Sewell’s cozy notions, aircraft noise is not restricted to Etobicoke or the northwest quadrant of the city.   I have illustrated some black dotted lines on the NEF map, and these indicate missed approach procedures for the various runways at Pearson.  If for whatever reason an aircraft has to abort a landing attempt, these are (very roughly speaking) the areas they will overfly while they are executing the missed approach procedure for their assigned runway.  These areas will not experience regular 30-NEF-level noise but they will experience very loud noise sporadically.  Aircraft  on a missed approach will pour on the throttle and slowly and noisily claw their way back into the sky.  This is not exactly a rare occurrence, but it does not happen with the frequency of regular landings and departures.  Also note that the pilot-in-command can disregard ATC instructions if he/she feels flight safety is in jeopardy, so aircraft are not always guaranteed to stick to the designated approach and departure paths.  They will for the most part, but there are occasional exceptions.

The cities of Toronto and Mississauga have already gone to great lengths to identify the affected areas and restrict residential zoning in them.  The airport has instituted rigorous noise abatement procedures and carefully monitors the current noise levels on a regular basis.  It forecasts the future noise levels and lobbies governments for more zoning restrictions.  You can’t exactly move the airport further away, because southern Ontario is now chock-full of people and residential zones from Sarnia to Barrie.  I have some sympathy for elderly folks who bought homes out in the western edge of the city — before the airport got really busy — and are now contending with the noise.  I have no sympathy at all for anyone who buys a home within a few kilometers of the airport and does no research regarding standard approach / departure paths, the noise footprint, and so on.  The airport is not exactly a secret, like mould behind the drywall.

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