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June 07, 2016

With airfare prices dropping (this is, after all, the cheapest summer to travel), travelers have many reasons to celebrate. But those who live near airports are less happy: the new flight patterns created by the Federal Aviation Administration as part of its NextGen program have created more noise pollution—and it may get worse. 

The program was developed to help modernize air traffic control and navigation systems, something that’s helped bring down travel costs. It’s already put more planes in the sky and reduced fuel costs and carbon emissions, but a change to a GPS-based navigation systems could create even more noise problems.

“Prior to having a GPS network... we relied on radar technology,” NextGen deputy assistant administrator Pamela Whitley told SIGNAL magazine. “With radar sweeps, you get an update about every eight to 10 seconds, depending on the specific radar. For those eight or 10 seconds, you don’t know exactly where the airplane is.”

This change means airplanes can travel more closely together and create new flight paths—allowing for additional direct flights. But the same cities that will enjoy increased airlift will also see an increase in noise pollution from the initial phases of this program. 

Complaints have come up in places like Phoenix, Arizona, Northern California, Washington, DC, Chicago, and Brooklyn, causing the FAA to respond. “We are very concerned about doing everything we can do to be as responsible as we can about noise,” FAA administrator Michael P. Huerta told the Washington Post. 

While air travel is likely to double in the next 20 years and many fear the noise will get worse, there is some hope in sight. Not only is the FAA reevaluating flight patterns, but new engine designs could reduce the overhead rumble as well.

"The single most impactful way we can mitigate noise is by investing in new aircraft that are quieter and more fuel efficient," Charles Hobart, a spokesman for United Airlines told the Chicago Tribune.

The Continuous Lower Energy, Emissions and Noise (CLEEN) program has the FAA working with companies like GE, Honeywell, and Boeing to develop more fuel-efficient and quieter engines. Changes like using lighter materials, altering engine airflow, and even using acoustic liners could all help dampen the noise.

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