Van Nuys Airport Achieves Zero Noise Impact Designation

Thomas G. Dolan
Published in: 

After battling noise issues for decades and spending millions of dollars to reduce its impact, Van Nuys Airport (VNY) recently succeeded in establishing a zero noise impact boundary around its Southern California facilities.

The milestone goal was reached when VNY documented compliance with a state code limiting its allowable noise contour to 65 decibels or less. The required "community noise equivalent level" averages sound over 24-hour periods, with evening and nighttime noise weighing more heavily in the equation.

Prior to its recent successes, the noise abatement issue challenged VNY's very existence. Ever since Los Angeles County designated it as a "noise problem airport" in 1980, VNY had to apply for three-year variances from California's Department of Transportation in order to remain in operation.

The airport received its first variance in 1988, after applying for it in 1986. Permission to operate while not in compliance with state noise regulations was issued after VNY demonstrated it was taking concrete measures to reduce its noise impact.


Project: Noise Abatement Program

Location: Van Nuys (CA) Int'l Airport

Owner/Operator: Los Angeles World Airports

Est. 2012 Aircraft Operations: 335,156

Environmental Consultant: Harris Miller Miller & Hanson

Program Elements: Noise curfews, aircraft operating & run-up restrictions, multi-year phase-out of noisier aircraft, suggested modification of arrival & departure flight paths, residential soundproofing.

Products Used: WebTrak, Airport Noise & Operations Management System

Hardware/Software Vendor: Brüel & Kjær EMS

Residential Soundproofing Program: $9.9 million

Units Soundproofed: 779

Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which owns and operates VNY, used a two-pronged strategy to create the zero noise impact area around its facilities. On one front, VNY is reducing noise production by changing aircraft operating procedures and encouraging - eventually requiring - operators to use newer, quieter aircraft. Soundproofing homes surrounding the airport is the other main component of its strategy.

Quieter Operations

VNY's loudest jet operations largely determined the extent of its noise impact boundary, explains Scott Tatro, LAWA's airport environmental manager. Formal restrictions on the operation of such jets - particularly during the most sensitive night hours - have clearly resulted in significant noise reductions in surrounding areas, Tatro adds.

Several other initiatives, both mandatory and voluntary, were also implemented with the operating restrictions.

The Quiet Jet Departure Program, for instance, encourages pilots on southbound departures to avoid turning right or left over residential areas. The suggested procedure has pilots fly straight until they reach non-populated areas like the flood basin before turning and climbing. "Over 95 percent of these departures now meet their targets," reports Tatro.

As VNY worked to meet state requirements, it also focused on complying with federal regulations, including FAA Advisory Circular 36-3, which prohibits aircraft from generating 74 or more decibels from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Stage 3 aircraft (newer or modified jets that produce less noise) are not affected by the curfew until 11 p.m.

VNY also enacted a Non-Addition Rule, which prohibits most older aircraft with noise levels exceeding 77 decibels from being based at the airport. The rule also prevents non-based Stage 2 aircraft with such noise levels from being parked, tied-down or hangared at the airport for more than 30 days in any calendar year. Exceptions are granted for major maintenance, repair and refurbishment.

Another effort, designed to permanently phase out noisier aircraft, began in 2009. When it ends in 2016, the airport will have no more airplanes with a certified noise level of over 74 decibels, reports Tatro.

VNY's Helicopter Route and Altitude Deviation Program alerts helicopter owners/operators when their arrivals or departures deviate from established FAA routes. This program, like many others, stresses notification as a compliance tool, explains Tatro. In addition to reminding operators to use established routes and altitude minimums, it increases awareness of airport noise issues and helps minimize flight and noise impact to nearby residential areas, especially during curfew hours, he notes.

Restrictions that limit when aircraft can be run up full throttle during repair and maintenance procedures round out the airport's collection of noise-reducing operating policies.

Measuring Progress

VNY uses a variety of resources to monitor its noise production and associated noise-related complaints - from paper flight data strips and audio recordings of tower frequencies to noise event data captured by field microphones, radar track information, curfew operations logs and noise complaint records.

WebTrak, by Brüel & Kjær EMS, allows community members, government personnel and others to investigate flight track and noise issues via the Internet. Users can search for flight activity by date and time.

Information is displayed on a background map with icons showing the position of each flight. Icons are color-coded for arrivals and departures and vary in appearance to denote different aircraft types.

A time slider can be clicked and dragged to advance or reverse the playback, and replay can be paused to help users identify specific flights of interest. Clicking on any aircraft icon shows a tag with detailed information about the flight and provides links to external websites with pictures and details about that aircraft type.

"The community sees the same data as the airport, showing (there is) nothing to hide," says Brüel & Kjær vice president Robert Brodecky.

WebTrak's map overlays and familiar Google Map technology make manipulation of the map display intuitive, he adds. The system also includes a report library that provides public access to aircraft operations and environmental office reports, noise studies and abatement programs; a pop-up window displays airport news when users log on. After analyzing the provided data, users can register a noise complaint at the airport with the click of a button, relates Brodecky.

The Airport Noise & Operations Management System, also from Brüel & Kjær, detects and alerts VNY personnel to noise and flight rule violations. Data is provided by 75 noise-monitoring terminals - ten located around the airport, the rest off-property. The system also includes an aircraft operator website and automated complaint entry capabilities.

Sound Policies

VNY's various initiatives have had the desired effect: a significant decrease in aircraft operations - from 551,747 in 1998 to a projected 335,156 in 2012. This, along with efforts to skew its fleet mix toward newer, quieter jets, helped the airport achieve a long-desired zero noise impact area.

Yet, despite myriad abatement efforts focused at the source of the noise, VNY's residential neighbors still felt the impact of aircraft noise. To solve this problem, LAWA spent millions of dollars reducing the interior noise level of habitable rooms in such houses to 45 decibels, a level between an average home and a quiet library. By comparison, normal conversation measured from three feet away is rated at about 60 decibels; most chainsaws are rated at 110 decibels from the same distance.

In 1998, 1,048 single-family homes and multi-family units were deemed eligible for VNY's Residential Sound Insulation Program. Through it, LAWA paid for the installation of solid core sound-rated doors, double-pain windows, attic insulation, chimney dampers and central air conditioning systems. Since 1999, LAWA had disbursed nearly $8.8 million to sound-insulate 726 units. In August 2011, an additional $1.1 million was allocated to sound-insulate 53 more units, which represent the last group of incompatible land uses within the eligibility contour.

The total cost to sound-insulate 779 of the 1,048 eligible units was nearly $10 million. The remaining 269 units are now vacant, already had the necessary insulation, or contained inhabitants who were not interested in the program.

Ted Baldwin, senior vice president of Harris Miller Miller & Hanson environmental consulting, has worked with VNY and LAWA's two other airports (Los Angeles International and LA/Ontario International) on residential soundproofing initiatives for the past seven years. Baldwin credits VNY in particular with beginning its noise abatement measures and compatibility planning many years ago. "VNY has had a longstanding policy in which they measured every single jet departure, and, with community input, established acceptable noise levels," he explains.

Baldwin also highlights the way VNY has engendered cooperation between community organizations and pilot groups, taking measures back and forth between the two constituencies to achieve a workable consensus. "The process is very transparent," he notes.

In some instances, however, the airport waits a few months before publicly releasing results of new initiatives. The public considers the process fair, reports Baldwin, and the pilots appreciate a chance to adjust to new procedures without the risk of being branded as noisemakers.

Pilots not meeting their noise abatement goals have typically received polite reminder letters from LAWA. Next year, however, VNY will begin to go one step further - but not in a punitive direction. "Rather than simply reporting on pilots who have done poorly, the airport will begin giving positive reinforcement by recognizing exceptional compliance," explains Baldwin. "Pilots are proud of what they do, and want to fly safely and efficiently. So we think this public recognition will enhance the process."

In addition to reducing incompatibility issues by soundproofing existing residents' homes, Baldwin notes that VNY is making efforts to prevent new problems from arising. For instance, the airport is working with local authorities to ensure that new residential developments are constructed to existing noise abatement standards.

Despite its best efforts, VNY will undoubtedly continue to face noise abatement issues, notes Baldwin. Its status as one of the three busiest general aviation airports in the world and its immediate proximity to a large residential population practically guarantee it.

That said, he considers VNY well suited for the challenge: "For over 30 years I've worked on noise abatement and compatibility issues in over 80 airports, many overseas. And I find VNY's achievements in this area the most comprehensive and impressive."


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