Helicopters that operate around the region will be able to fly at higher altitudes and vary their routes as part of a new set of initiatives aimed at reducing aircraft noise over Northern Virginia neighborhoods.
The plan announced Tuesday also includes a system that will allow residents to report helicopter noise. The phone line, website and mobile app will be funded by Arlington and Fairfax counties, Alexandria and Falls Church, although reports can be filed by residents across the D.C. region.
Noise from airplanes and helicopters is an issue in communities across the country, but the Washington region is unique in that it is home to a significant number of military and federal agencies. According to the Government Accountability Office, the region has three major airports, 11 regional airports and 55 heliports, not including those operated by the military.
“This has been part of a slow evolution,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), who has helped to lead efforts to reduce the effects of helicopter noise. “We can’t eliminate helicopter noise because of where we are, but we can mitigate it.”
Beyer joined representatives from the Defense Department, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Helicopter Association International, and officials from Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church during an announcement Tuesday in Arlington.
Ronald Tickle, deputy assistant secretary of defense for real property, said the FAA’s decision to allow helicopters to raise their altitude and adjust routes are important steps to address noise concerns.
“The Department of Defense is committed to being good neighbors and takes the concerns of Congress and its constituents seriously,” he said in a statement.
Peter Hearding, deputy assistant administrator for the FAA’s Office of Policy, International Affairs and Environment, hailed the new initiatives as an example of an accomplishment when multiple stakeholders with access to the same information work toward a goal.
In 2019, Beyer was among a group of lawmakers that included Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), and Maryland Reps. Jamie B. Raskin (D) and David Trone (D), who requested that the GAO examine the issue of helicopter noise and its effects on area residents. The report, released in 2021, found that efforts to address noise concerns were hampered by a lack of communication between operators, community members and the agencies tasked with monitoring aircraft noise complaints.
GAO recommends the FAA create a centralized system for tracking helicopter noise
For example, the report said, FAA is responsible for regulating noise from civil helicopter flights, adding that while the agency collected some information, it did not share it with aircraft operators. In some cases, residents didn’t know where to file complaints.
Unlike noise complaints tied to operations at the region’s three airports, Baltimore-Washington International Marshall, Dulles International and Reagan National airports, helicopter noise was difficult for officials to track because there was no centralized system for collecting it. It also was difficult, in some cases, to determine which agency or business operated a particular aircraft.
That changed last June with the launch of a tool for tracking and analyzing helicopter noise complaints. Beyer said information collected from that pilot program proved critical in persuading the FAA and Defense Department to make changes in how aircraft can operate in the region.
“This helicopter noise complaint tool was far more than a nicety to assuage frustrated residents,” Alexandria Mayor Justin M. Wilson (D) said in a statement. “This tool gathered data that was used by the FAA to make important changes that will mitigate helicopter noise across our region. Our residents weren’t just listened to — they were heard.”
According to the GAO report, data collected by the FAA showed that between 2017 and 2019, there were roughly 88,000 helicopter flights operated by 50 entities in the region. The bulk of those were tied to the military, but they also included flights by medical operations, state and local law enforcement, and federal agencies. However, the GAO found that because there is no centralized system for tracking complaints, there was no way to determine how many complaints those flights generated.
The GAO also found that the number of helicopter operations decreased slightly over the three-year period it reviewed, surprising some residents who had believed the number of flights had grown.