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Aircraft noise around Sedona

by† Paul† Chevalier

Editorís Note: Chevalier is the Chairman of Sedonaís Art and Culture Commission. He is a retired Senior Executive of a major retailer where he was responsible for law and personnel. He holds a Degree in Government from Columbia College, a Law Degree from Columbia Law School and Business Degrees from both Columbia and Harvard Business Schools.

Aircraft are an indispensable part of our world today.

With aircraft we travel faster, transport our goods, provide emergency medical support and defend our nation. Most of us understand the importance of these things and so we are willing to tolerate aircraft noise, but people have noise toleration limits. If some concerned Sedona citizens have their way, the issue of how much aircraft noise is acceptable in and around Sedona will soon be tested.

Last July, the Sedona Citizensí Noise Abatement Committee (SNAC), an action oriented citizensí group, sponsored a mailing of a Community Aircraft Sound Questionnaire. In this survey, SNAC asked the roughly 15,000 people who live in the greater Sedona (which includes the Village of Oak Creek) whether they had a problem with aircraft noise and what kinds of aircraft they thought were creating a noise problem.

The 1,479 responses to this questionnaire, representing the views of at least 10 percent of the population, have been tallied. Half of the respondents replied that they have no problem with aircraft noise and half of the respondents replied that they do have a problem with aircraft noise.

Eighty percent of the respondents stated that aircraft noise either stayed the same or increased in the past year. Only 20 percent of respondents said they thought aircraft noise had decreased. The people who stated they do have a problem with aircraft noise, and even some of those who said they didnít have a problem with it, responded that the main aircraft noise problem came from certain kinds of tour planes. Specifically, 748 respondents complained of helicopter noise and 538 respondents complained of bi-plane noise.

I think the reason there was such a large response to this questionnaire, was that it was mailed at a time when a serious effort was underway to gather support or opposition for replacing Sedona airport with a regional airport outside of the City of Sedona. There are many people who have a vested interest in maintaining the Sedona airport: a) approximately 80 people work there; b) there are five air-tour operations; c) more than 110 private airplanes lease airport space; and d) other businesses on the mesa are financially dependent on the existence of the airport.

The questionnaire contains seven pages of comments by those who say they have no problem with airport noise. Many of these comments focused on support for the airport remaining on Sedonaís Table Top Mesa and did not mention aircraft noise.

On the other side of this issue are the people who object to the level of aircraft noise in and around Sedona. Judging by their comments on the questionnaire, many respondents are angry at what they see as a lack of consideration by some pilots, particularly pilots of tour aircraft, that regularly disturb their peace by flying low and loud over homes and nearby national forest hiking trails. There are 11 pages of comments by the respondents who do have a complaint. Almost all of these comments are about aircraft noise, but relatively few mention relocating the airport as an option.

The questionnaire response makes it clear that there is insufficient public support for building a regional airport. The idea of replacing the current Sedona airport is no longer being given consideration by any government entity of which I am aware. Sedona airport employees, leasees and other friends of the airport can rest easy on this issue.

However, something else that is very important came out of this questionnaire. The survey effectively ratified the views expressed by many people in the recent past that our major aircraft noise problem is caused by tour helicopters and bi-planes.

For years, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has been successful in convincing practically everyone in authority in our state, cities and airport administrations that it has sole power over all issues relating to flying aircraft. Unfortunately, the FAA has not required that aircraft owners be sensitive to the effect that the noise from their engines have on people on the ground over which aircraft fly.

To its credit, the FAA did issue an advisory bulletin in 1984 requesting that aircraft fly no less than 2,000 feet above noise sensitive areas such as national forest trails, schools, churches and residential areas. But the FAA does not mandate compliance with this bulletin, possibly because it doesnít feel it has the authority to do so. The result has been that the advisory is frequently ignored and many people in the United States have been left with an unsolved aircraft noise problem.

People who live in America do not willingly tolerate unsolved problems that affect their peace. If the FAA canít or wonít solve this environmental noise problem, then smart, determined people living in America will take the initiative and solve it. We have some of those folks in Sedona.

†The truth is, like most problems, there is more than one way that tour air craft noise can be reduced to a tolerable level. I can think of two ways to solve this problem. No doubt there are other solutions. The first and best solution I can think of is for ALL the air tour operators to do two things: a) comply with the Sedona Airport Authority (SAA) noise abatement advisory procedure described below and b) use aircraft equipped for quieter running.

†In summary, the SAA noise abatement advisory procedure urges all pilots to: a) make no scenic flights below 6,500 feet (which is about 1,700 feet above the airportís Mesa); b) to climb, in so far as possible, to the 6,500 feet level before leaving the skies above the airport; c) to make no flights over the City of Sedona; and d) to avoid departures between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

These are sensible requests and, if complied with 100% by EVERY tour pilot, would reduce the reasons for citizen complaint and reaction. Some pilots do comply with some or all of this SAA advisory. Personally, I have noticed that bi-planes are flying at higher altitudes. Those that do not comply hurt the relationship for all the air tour operators and the community. To comply with these procedures, air tour operators will pay for additional fuel because their pilots must fly higher and fly around the perimeter of the City to avoid residential areas. No business likes to add costs, but this cost should be considered a necessary price to pay for the peace and health of a significant part of our community. In the United States today, many businesses incur costs for compliance with environmental concerns.

To solve this noise problem, there is an additional action that I believe tour operators of helicopters and bi-planes need to take. These operators need to reduce the noise of the craft they fly.

Flying higher and avoiding the City will substantially help solve the aircraft noise problem within much of the City, but it does not solve the noise problem over our national forest when the aircraft tours fly outside the City limits. Expensive (very expensive for helicopters) quiet technology for both helicopters and bi-planes is available, but so is the possibility of switching to alternative quieter tour aircraft, including gliders and dirigibles.

At the Sedona Airport there are three helicopters and three bi-planes out of a total of 16-tour aircraft. Clearly residents and tourists are not insisting that they do their air sightseeing in helicopters and bi-planes. If tour operators are going to solve this problem, they need to either switch to quieter types of tour aircraft or find a way to pay the cost of upgrading to quieter helicopters and mechanical improvements to reduce noise in bi-planes.

Members of SNAC are discussing a second option for solving this tour aircraft noise problem. This option is to use the law to regulate aircraft noise levels and to impose severe restrictions on tour aircraft days and hours of operations.

There are aviation law firms in America with ex-FAA attorneys as partners who have been successful in helping communities and airports regulate the noise level and hours of operation of tour aircraft. These specialized law firms are keenly aware that the FAA derives its authority under a section of the United States Constitution that gives the federal government authority over interstate commerce. But our Constitution does not give the FAA authority over commerce solely within a state.

Court cases have often blurred the distinction between interstate and intrastate commerce, but they have not eliminated it. Both the Ninth Circuit and the Second Circuit US Courts of Appeals have held, respectively, that the Santa Monica, California, Airport Association and the City of New York have a legal right to regulate tour aircraft operations in a manner that reduces ground noise.

Sedona is located within the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided the Santa Monica case. Its decision is particularly important to us as the Ninth Circuit is the highest federal court in our country to which there is an automatic appeal of a case from Sedona. There is no automatic appeal to the US Supreme Court in this kind of case. If some unhappy party were to appeal to the Supreme Court, I think it is highly unlikely that the Supreme Court would consider this an important enough matter to use its discretion to grant review.

In the two US Courts of Appeals legal decisions just mentioned, some of the regulations affecting tour aircraft that were held reasonable limited or eliminated tour aircraft takeoffs and landings on weekends. Based on these Courts of Appeals decisions, it seems to me that aircraft noise regulation enacted by Yavapai County, the SAA or even the City of Sedona have a good chance of withstanding legal challenge, particularly if such challenge is defended by one of the specialized aviation law firms. If similar regulations are adopted here in Sedona, I think it would prove uneconomical for most, if not all, Sedona tour aircraft to continue in business.

Adopting this kind of regulation, in my opinion, should be reserved as a last resort and should only occur if the tour operators as a group are unwilling to accept some voluntary solution that will reduce the aircraft noise to an acceptable decibel level on the ground in residential and forest trail areas.

Air tour operators should not act as if this kind of local regulation wonít happen. They should not depend on the FAA as a shield. There are smart and determined people in Sedona who are serious about having these kinds of regulations implemented either through the SAA or some other governmental body. I believe that unless the tour operators take the initiative to solve the noise problem that they have created, they may be regulated out of business.

But it doesnít have to be that way. This aircraft noise problem can be solved without eliminating Sedonaís tour aircraft business - if the Sedona air tour operators are willing to wisely and effectively address this issue. I hope they do.†

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