It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a Noise-Abatement Issue!

MIA's ear-splitting flight paths have local residents ready to take flight

It's not that Patrick McCoy hates airplanes -- after all, he's a pilot for a major commercial airline, so his livelihood pretty much depends on the beasts. It's just that he doesn't like them flying so low over his home that he can't talk on the phone. "If one were going over right now, we wouldn't be having this conversation," he says during a quiet, plane-free moment.

For the past five years McCoy has lived in the prosperous, tree-lined residential neighborhood of Morningside, nestled between Biscayne Boulevard and the bay, east of Little Haiti. And for five years McCoy has tried to get used to the noise of jets thundering overhead en route from Miami International Airport, six miles away, to destinations around the globe. The phenomenon was at first occasional but is now constant, with planes roaring overhead as often as every half-minute during peak hours.

Moreover, he says, many planes taking off to the east on their way to southern or northern destinations are banking above Morningside, which creates even more noise. He suspects there's been a change in flight paths, and Miami's central neighborhoods, most of which are low-income, are getting the shaft. For the past year he has choreographed a letter-writing campaign among annoyed residents.

"We deserve the right to enjoy a certain quality of life," argues McCoy, who also led the recent successful drive to erect guard gates at the entrances to his neighborhood. "This means that a massive bureaucracy like the Dade County Aviation Department must listen to community members like us."

Enter Jeffrey Bunting, environmental planner for the aviation department and the guy who listens to all the noise about, well, the noise. He's a preternaturally cheerful bureaucrat who says things like "Sounds great, bud!" "Super!" "No problem!" and even "Super no problem!" -- despite the fact that he fields about 100 calls per month from people who want to yell at him about the din of planes. He's received complaints not only from Morningside but from Virginia Gardens, Miami Springs, Key Biscayne, Miami Beach, Doral, Coconut Grove, North Miami Beach -- "You know what woulda been easier? To ask where in Dade County I don't get complaints."

Bunting rebuts the speculation that specific neighborhoods are purposely being singled out, or that recently there has been any shifting of customary flight paths, but he does acknowledge that the departure and arrival procedures are a mess. In a conference room at the airport, he pulls out a large piece of posterboard on which is drawn a map of central Dade covered in a tangle of blue lines: current departure patterns from the airport's three runways. "Looks like a bowl of spaghetti, doesn't it?" he asks. "We're all over the doggone place."

Part of the confusion -- and attendant noise problem -- lies in the fact that Miami International Airport doesn't have a mandatory noise-reduction program designed to reduce aircraft noise pollution. Instead the airport distributes voluntary guidelines to its airlines, guidelines that govern airplane flight procedures such as the angles of ascent and descent, as well as arrival and departure routes. The recommendations are vague and allow for wide variation in behavior.

But the absence of a mandatory policy angers McCoy. "There's no reason why the county shouldn't have a compulsory noise-abatement policy," rails the pilot, who requested that New Times not identify the name of his employer. "We should be no different from Chicago, Washington, Tampa." The county, he asserts, is hesitant to implement compulsory rules because airlines will complain about cost disadvantages and threaten to move to other, less regulated airports.

Bunting, though, says such a policy is unnecessary and would require a time-consuming and expensive approval process. The planner, who arrived from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport three years ago, is instead trying to implement new procedures and policies that would achieve the same end. For example, he is overseeing the creation of a "noise office" and the installation of a new radar and sound-monitoring system that will allow airport officials to track flight paths better. He has also dreamed up several new directives he hopes will allow Dade's citizenry to sleep better. Among them: a simplifying of arrival and departure flight patterns.

He hoists another posterboard. The turmoil of the previous diagram has been replaced by several branching lines. According to this plan, planes would travel along specific routes from the runways, then turn over Biscayne Bay, downtown Miami, or the Atlantic Ocean. Another of Bunting's proposals would require airlines to be more consistent in their takeoff procedures and force pilots to depart at steeper angles.

Finally, he wants to encourage more westward departures. For reasons of physics, pilots must take off and land into the wind, except in calm conditions. And since the wind at the airport generally blows from the east, most planes have to depart toward the east. Therefore they must fly over the more heavily congested residential areas of Miami. But according to Bunting, planes almost always take off toward the east -- even in calm conditions. This, he insists, is unnecessary. He wants to gradually wean the control tower and airlines from the habit of eastward departures by requiring westward takeoffs during nighttime hours when the wind speed is five knots or less. Bunting hopes to present his ideas to the Dade County Commission in the next several weeks.

But the package of recommendations may just be a feint. If adopted, it would be mandatory and would thus amount to practically the same thing as a codified noise-abatement policy. Asked if airline operators might see through the semantic costume and rise up against the proposals, Bunting says, "We don't know if it's going to work unless we try it." Still, he adds, there's no intent to attach penalties to the new procedures. Bunting would rather use gentle persuasion and prodding to bring airlines into line: "I may send you a nastygram saying, 'This is the noise you're creating. Would you please, please help us out here?'"

As Bunting's plans progress, yet another source of relief is in the works for the deafened masses. In response to citizen complaints, the county commission recently voted to form a task force to look into aircraft-noise issues. The group is supposed to include representatives from local neighborhoods, government, and the aviation industry. Ever the gadfly, though, McCoy is not placated by the commission's decision to create a task force. In fact, he notes, that vote was three months ago and as far as he can tell, nothing's happened since then. He has a theory: Officials are purposely delaying so that the airport's fourth runway, which is now under review, won't be subject to new policies.

But McCoy's own commissioner, Barbara Carey, clucks at the notion that political subterfuge is at work. "Everybody's been on vacation since August. We gotta rest our nerves!" scolds the commissioner, who cosponsored the task-force resolution with Commissioner Bruce Kaplan. "The issue is in the county manager's office, and he's supposed to be putting together the members of the team. I'm going down there today to ask about it."

Adds Bunting, patiently (of course): "We're trying to build up trust. I have complaints from the 1940s basically saying the same thing as today -- this situation has prevailed for years! We're now trying to get a handle on it.

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