Sunday, May 27, 2007

As the weather warms, I encourage everyone to get outside and enjoy your neighborhood! However, I've found that increasingly, every moment I spend in my garden is consumed by incredible noise from massive jets flying directly overhead. I've lived on Capitol Hill for more than 10 years and in the Central District for more than 4 years. I am happy with an urban life, and am happy to endure my fair share of urban noise, including flight noise.

However, starting last summer, I noticed an incredible increase in the number of flights, and in particular shockingly low flights directly overhead. We noticed being awoken at night from jets regularly, and conversations on the patio had to cease in 3 minute intervals. I could look to the north and see them lining up for miles. In the fall I began doing research and was startled with what I learned.

Before I get too far into that… here's the important part:

First, Sea-Tac has a Noise Abatement Office with an informative website at:

Second, they do track complaints re noise, and these are evaluated when determining future noise mitigation efforts. I did notice that neighborhoods with a lot of complaints seemed to be successful in shifting the noise away from their areas.

SUBMIT NOISE COMPLAINTS TO: or BY PHONE: 206-787-5393 or toll-free 1-800-826-1147, day or night. Don't worry about submitting multiple complaints, as they count both the total number and the number of unique complainants. Certain waterfront neighborhoods had the same people complaining hundreds of times.

Now for all the rest that I never expected to learn.

Flights need to change direction based on weather. Roughly 70% of the year, Sea-tac is in a "South Flow" pattern meaning all flights land and depart from the North to the South. When in a South Flow pattern, EVERY FLIGHT LANDING AT SEA-TAC flies in a straight line from 520, directly over Capitol Hill, then the Central District, then Beacon Hill until landing at Sea-Tac. The target path is roughly over 19th Avenue. 100% of the burden of all descending flight noise is upon these neighborhood when in a South Flow pattern.
In fact, here are some "interesting" related points. Flights from all directions are instructed to maintain altitudes above 5000 feet until they clear North of 520, at which point they turn to face South, line up over 19th Ave. and can descend as low as 1800 feet all the way to roughly Boeing Field, where they descend lower to land. This is 1800 feet from sea level, not from the ground. So they'll be closer than this when you're on a hill.
When reviewing flight maps, you'll notice that no flights are over West Seattle, where the Mayor lives, nor over Mercer Island, nor Leschi, nor Hunts Point, nor any other waterfront properties – even though most cities direct ALL flight traffic over waterways where available in order to avoid direct impact over neighborhoods. (Hmmm, very interesting). Instead, Seattle has chosen to direct all flight traffic over the most densely populated neighborhoods, along the highest and longest North-South ridge on route to the airport. I don't think there's another route they could have chosen that would negatively impact more people.
Luckily, as part of the advanced noise abatement efforts by the Port of Seattle, I learned that they have implemented noise monitors throughout the city specifically to track the impact of noise from overhead flights. These measure the frequency, duration and intensity of noise occurrences to help the Port mitigate the impact on the community. I thought this would make great evidence in showcasing the unfair burden of noise put on our neighborhood.
However, despite placing 25 noise monitors throughout the city, there is not a single noise monitor on Capitol Hill, or in the Central District! There is one near I-90 at 30th Avenue South, and one on Southeast Beacon Hill (across the ridge from the flight path). In both locations, distance from the main flight path helps diffuse the impact of the noise. But there is not a single monitor, over the most densely populated neighborhoods, situated directly under the flight path. Unbelievable. It's almost as if they don't really want any evidence of the actual impact of noise over densely populated neighborhoods. It's almost as if it's in the Port's best interest, at the expense of the community, not to know just how much of a burden the flight noise is.
Also of interest: West Seattle has a flight noise monitor, Mercer Island has one, and Hunts Point has one. But there are no flights fly over these neighborhoods. (Hmmmmm.)
I requested flight maps for certain random days. (Anyone can request up to 4 pages of information per month through the noise abatement office). I received one flight map from 2000, one from 2002, (I omitted 2001 thinking the data would be skewed), one for the previous year and one for the current year. As I suspected, in 2000 flights came from all directions, all above 5000 feet, turned at random points, including over West Seattle and Mercer Island, and within very close range to the airport. However, by winter of 2002, all the flights followed the current pattern of merging into a single stream north of 520, and descending over Capitol Hill and the Central District.
You can request that the flight maps include altitudes, and I found that in addition to the significant shift in burden from the new flight path, the altitudes in 2002 and beyond were significantly lower. I can't fathom the reason for this. From both a post-9/11 FAA safety perspective, and from a noise reduction perspective, it makes absolutely no sense. So not only are all the planes lining up over our homes, but they're also flying significantly lower for longer periods. I've noticed this when I've flown and it's frustrating and scary even as a passenger. I've heard the engines have to rev up just to keep the speed to stay in the air long enough to make it to the airport. These engines rev up over our homes. is a great website where you can look up aeronautical charts for all the major airports in the country. These are detailed maps that show altitude guidelines, as well as obstructions and other important details for pilots. On the map for Seattle, it shows an obstruction on Capitol Hill at 1092 feet, and yet the floor for the acceptable altitude is 1800 feet, leaving a clearance of only roughly 700 feet!! And this is roughly 15 miles from the airport! I am shocked that following 9/11 anyone would think a 700 foot clearance is acceptable anywhere, let alone in an urban neighborhood.
It turns out that in 2002 a "Part 150" study was conducted and some major changes were made to help mitigate noise impact. I'm not sure, but I believe that Part 150 is the part of the FAA regulation where the airport proprietors (Port of Seattle) make recommendations to the FAA to minimize flight noise impact. From what I can gather, the FAA looks to the proprietor to make recommendations regarding flight paths to minimize impact. Since the City, the County and the State also have an interest in a successful airport and happy communities, the Port is expected to work with them and the community to decide the best solution to the noise problem. It seems that each of these groups hung Capitol Hill and the Central District out to dry in 2002, and unfortunately, as a result of an overall reduction in the number of flights, the impact of this change wasn't fully realized until recently, when flight volumes are finally reaching the same levels as pre-9/11.
The next Part 150 Study won't occur until the third runway is complete, however, I believe we need to start gearing up right now. This is particularly true because we don't even have a noise monitor, so it will be difficult to quantify the impact on our communities. The only way to quantify the impact is through complaints and possibly legal action. We need to engage our political representatives and demand more from them.
What to do now?
  • Get involved. File complaints, every time you hear a loud plane, submit a complaint. Ask for a noise monitor in the Central District, under the flight path (TT Minor or Garfield would be a great location!!)
  • Get your local communities and government representatives involved. They need to help us make our neighborhoods more livable. Write the mayor, your city and county council members, your state representatives and the governor.
  • Raise awareness. Share information with your neighbors and friends. Get them thinking about and motivated by this unjust burden.
  • What else? I would like your ideas on effecting change.
Thanks for reading my first attempt at blogging!