Reagan National Airport:

Limited Opportunities to Improve Airlines' Compliance with Noise Abatement Procedures

RCED-00-74: Published: Jun 29, 2000. Publicly Released: Aug 1, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO: (1) described the specific noise abatement procedures at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport; (2) determined whether the airlines comply with these procedures; and (3) assessed whether local citizen groups believe that existing noise abatement procedures and penalties are effective.

GAO noted that: (1) local airport procedures and federal laws contain a number of provisions designed in part to limit aircraft noise at Reagan National; (2) a nighttime noise procedure imposed by the airport authority generally permits flight operations between 10 p.m. and 7.a.m only by certain aircraft that can meet relatively strict noise limits; (3) however, aircraft that were scheduled to arrive before 10 p.m. may land later if an air traffic controller cleared them prior to 10:30 p.m.; (4) this exception recognizes that aircraft are sometimes delayed en route; (5) local airport rules require both departing and arriving flights to follow the Potomac River north and south of the airport for several miles before turning; (6) in particular, aircraft are prohibited from flying over federally protected areas in Washington, D.C., such as the Capitol and White House; (7) airport rules also require pilots of departing aircraft to reduce engine power, and thus engine noise, after reaching either a specified altitude or a certain distance from the airport, depending on the direction of the aircraft's departure; (8) the airport's noise abatement procedure incorporates the federal law that generally bars airlines from operating nonstop flights to or from an airport located more than 1,250 statute miles from Reagan National; (9) although information available from the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on the number of violations of Reagan National's noise abatement measures suggests that the airlines have generally met local requirements, certain shortcomings in MWAA's and FAA's efforts to monitor airline operations raise doubts about the extent of the airlines' actual compliance; (10) data from MWAA show that violations of that rule have decreased since the early 1990s, in part because airlines have begun to replace older, noisier aircraft with newer, quieter versions; (11) MWAA says it has a high degree of confidence that these aircraft are being operated in compliance with the noise rule; (12) although FAA's data indicate that there were very few instances of pilots' failure to follow air traffic control instructions pertaining to the flight path, FAA officials acknowledged that they generally focus only on keeping aircraft away from the federally protected areas in Washington, D.C., and do not track the number of incidents where pilots may have strayed from the flight path over local neighborhoods; and (13) local groups do not believe that existing procedures and penalties are as effective as they should be in encouraging airlines' compliance with noise abatement requirements.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Chief Counsel, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the agency is now randomly spot-checking airline compliance with nighttime noise limits (most of which are weight-related because all aircraft operating to and from Washington National Airport are now equipped with modern "stage 3" noise-compliant engines). MWAA does so by randomly obtaining flight data from aircraft transponders. This also allows MWAA to see if aircraft are operating in manners consistent with the agreements between the airlines, MWAA, and FAA (e.g., regarding takeoff and landing times or "slots").

    Recommendation: To ensure that airlines operating at Reagan National during nighttime hours do so in compliance with the local nighttime noise rule, the President/Chief Executive Officer, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, should commit to a schedule of randomly verifying that arriving and departing aircraft are being operated in a manner consistent with the terms of legally binding agreements that some airlines have reached with MWAA and FAA.

    Agency Affected: Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to the Chief Counsel, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), the agency is completing a "Part 150" noise study. This study is "likely" to include recommendations to FAA that MWAA be funded to procure a state-of-the-art noise monitoring and compliance system. The Chief Counsel also noted that MWAA has implemented several upgrades to its former system in the past few years, which allow it to obtain real-time noise compliance information from aircraft transponders. This has allowed the airport authority to check compliance more readily rather than having to request information from FAA.

    Recommendation: The President/Chief Executive Officer, Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, should study the relative benefits and costs of procuring a more technologically advanced noise-monitoring system.

    Agency Affected: Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In a written response, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) indicated that it no longer agreed with the facts as presented in the report, in which GAO had written that FAA does not have a systematic way to monitor compliance with or enforce violations of the DCA slot rule. FAA's Nov. 11, 2004 letter indicated that "...FAA does have a reliable method for consistently determining whether airlines are complying with the slot rule." The letter noted that FAA compares slot allocations to the published schedules and randomly samples to verify that carriers' slot holdings are consistent with its published schedule. FAA described its procedures and processes as "adequate" and noted that any additional effort to monitor compliance would only divert resources otherwise devoted to administering other aspects of the slot program.

    Recommendation: To improve oversight of the federal slot rule, particularly in light of the addition of 24 flights at Reagan National, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FAA, to: (1) develop a reliable method (including definitions and procedures) for consistently determining whether airlines are complying with the federal slot rule; and (2) maintain a system of records of the violations identified and FAA's disposition of them in a form that will enable FAA to evaluate its overall monitoring and enforcement effort.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Aviation Administration


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