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After Jet Noise Complaints Soar, Aldermen Call for Council Hearing

By Heather Cherone | January 20, 2014 7:15am
 Residents near O'Hare Airport have said noise in the area is like having "a virtual railroad track in the sky" since a new runway opened.
Residents near O'Hare Airport have said noise in the area is like having "a virtual railroad track in the sky" since a new runway opened.
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O'HARE — As the number of complaints about the racket caused by jets using O'Hare Airport's new runway soar, two Northwest Side aldermen want answers from airport officials about what can be done to turn down the volume.

From September — the last full month before the new east-west runway opened in October — to November, complaints to the city-run toll-free hotline rose 124 percent, according to data compiled by the O'Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.

Ald. Mary O'Connor (41st), who called for the City Council's Committee on Aviation to hold the hearing, along with Ald. Margaret Laurino (39th), said she was surprised by the number of complaints. About half of them came from city residents, and about half came from suburban homeowners.

"I thought that with this cold weather people would be in their homes, and wouldn't be so bothered by the noise," said O'Connor, the vice chairwoman of the committee. "There is going to be a real surge in the spring."

Residents of O'Connor's ward, which includes Norwood Park and Edison Park, filed the highest number of complaints of any Chicago ward, logging more than 1,000 complaints.

"We need to find a balance that allows our residents to continue to enjoy the quality of life they have come to expect," O'Connor said.

Residents of Ald. John Arena's 45th Ward filed about 900 complaints, while Laurino's 39th Ward filed nearly 250 complaints.

"The people in my district who live in Sauganash, Edgebrook and North Park didn't move next to the airport and start complaining," Laurino said, adding that the airport — by changing its flight path — moved to them.

All three alderman had been urging residents angry about the increased noise — likened by some to a "virtual railroad track in the sky" over their homes — to call the hotline to voice their displeasure.

The city's Aviation Department anticipated an increase in the number of complaints after the opening of the new runway, department spokeswoman Karen Pride said.

The 4,763 complaints filed in November came from 395 people, with each complainant making an average of 12 calls to the hotline, Pride said. 

Tentatively scheduled for Jan. 27, the hearing is expected to feature testimony about the new flight path to and from O'Hare from Chicago Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino, officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and representatives of the major airlines that operate at O'Hare.

Aviation Committee Chairman Ald. Michael Zalewski (23rd) said he hoped the hearing would give residents a chance to air their complaints.

"I'm not sure what changes will happen," Zalewski said. "At least it will give residents a voice."

Part of the $6.6 billion O'Hare Modernization Plan, approved in 2001, the new runway, which opened Oct. 17, allows planes to take off heading west, while arriving planes approach the airport from the east. 

That has resulted in hundreds of more flights over neighborhoods that had little or no jet noise before the new runway opened, officials said.

That means residents who live north and south of the airport are experiencing less noise, while those who live east and west of the airport in Sauganash, Forest Glen, Edgebrook and North Park, are hearing much more racket, officials said.

Federal Aviation Administration officials have said the new runway configuration will be safer and more efficient, especially during bad weather at O'Hare. Before the new runway opened, most planes used O'Hare's diagonal runways, which often forced the planes to cross paths on the ground.

Overall, airport officials fielded more than 25,000 complaints from January to November — the highest amount for any year since 1996, according to the data.

U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) said he plans to testify at the Council hearing and urge the Council to pressure the FAA to make changes to ensure that the Northwest Side does not bear the entire burden of the necessary expansion and modernization of O'Hare Airport.

A noise monitor installed at North Park Village, 5801 N. Pulaski Road, 10.5 miles away from the airport, has recorded "extraordinary" levels of jet noise, Quigley said.

"I think everyone underestimated how much noise and how loud it would be so far from the airport," Quigley said. "It is a much bigger burden on those residents than anyone realized."

In the short term, Quigley said the Aviation Department should extend the airport's voluntary fly quiet program, which urges planes to choose flight paths over less-populated areas such as forest preserves and expressways from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. The program should start at 9 p.m., the congressman said.

Airport officials should also spread arrivals and departures more equitably among all of the runways to avoid the noise being concentrated over a few neighborhoods, Quigley said.

But in a Jan. 8 letter to Quigley and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Chicago), Andolino rejected their request to expand the Fly Quiet program, saying the airport handles a "considerable amount of traffic between 9 and 10 p.m. that would be negatively impacted by limiting available runways."

Andolino also rejected the representatives' request to spread out arrivals and departures among all of the airport runways, saying it would "simply displace noise impacts from one neighborhood to another.''

Quigley also has asked FAA officials to allow more homes around O'Hare to qualify for subsidized soundproofing, such as new attic insulation, air conditioning, exterior doors, storm doors and windows that block all noise.

The city plans to spend $120 million insulating 4,700 residences during the next three to five years, Pride said.

Airport officials should also update the map that outlines the amount of sound expected in areas around the airport, Quigley said.

That map will be revised once the airport modernization project is complete in 2020, Pride said.

A study that could result in more homes qualifying for soundproofing is expected to be completed by December 2015, FAA spokesman Anthony Molinaro said.