It Takes A Village
Dallas Love Field and community stakeholders have been meeting for the last several months to update policies regarding aircraft noise, particularly during nighttime hours. An airport, with airplanes, making noise? Yes, people near the airport know where they live and should expect airplanes to do airplane things, so making it a completely quiet place devoid of noise is just about impossible. But there's more to this conversation and it has to do with outdated noise models, ironclad(ish) laws and an agreement made by three cities and two airlines that lifted most route restrictions from Love Field in exchange for some "promises." In other words, in the middle of life near Love Field as they knew it, the rules changed right from under the residents and things have gotten a bit louder as a result.
While the issue of noise from planes over homes flies beyond the boundaries of Bachman Lake Park and the direct work of Friends of Bachman Lake, the culture of gathering community members together to find solutions for a better quality of life is a model that the group is proud to endorse. The conversation between resident stakeholders and airport and airline representatives for an equitable solution is just the latest example of how groups that advocate for better community outcomes can learn from each other to arrive at a better place.
A Brief History
When DFW Airport opened in 1973, what to do about competition from nearby airports such as Love Field became a contentious issue. Dominant carrier Braniff International Airways moved most operations to DFW from Love Field and American Airlines, still based in New York City, was not to make its heavy presence felt there until 1979, just after airlines were deregulated and cut-throat competition began in earnest. It was a last goodbye to the golden age of hot meals in ample coach seats and on-board piano bars for those in the pointy end of the plane.
So what about Love? Officials and local politicians worried about competition for the shiny new airport eventually pushed a law through Congress, the Wright Amendment, that restricted nonstop flights out of Love Field to just four neighboring states. Later amendments expanded the range to other states but for decades, Love Field was essentially a regional airport with one dominant carrier, Southwest Airlines.
Where We've Landed Today
Lobbying to repeal or loosen the restrictions at Love became stronger over the years which eventually led to our current 5-party agreement, essentially freeing flights from Love Field to anywhere in the contiguous 48 states. As reported years ago in this Dallas Morning news feature:
"The compromise also said that all the existing gates at Love Field would be replaced with a new 20-gate terminal. The old facilities would be torn down and paved over. The 2006 deal even prohibited airlines from parking an airplane away from a gate and rolling out stairs to unload the passengers as a way to add a little capacity. Twenty gates. That was it."
That's still the case today but what also happened was that this new terminal was designed to face a runway that had not seen a ton of use compared to the other parallel strip. Let's call them the Denton Avenue and Lemmon Avenue runways for the sake of familiarity.
Now, more than half of the gates at Love Field face a runway that is closer to residential areas (Lemmon) and its use has skyrocketed. In case you haven't noticed, there is a lot of new construction along the Lemmon Avenue side of the airport, including new hangars and private and charter jet facilities outside of the main terminal area. So this is not all on Southwest Airlines. They're just the biggest player with the biggest planes.
But what about other operators who are "rolling out stairs to unload passengers" not only between domestic cities but now international ones too? Scheduled international flights from Love Field are not permitted. Or so we've been told. Is this a prohibition only for scheduled, traditional airlines, known under Federal Code of Regulations as CFR Part 121 carriers? There are interesting goings-on with smaller operators such as JSX essentially functioning somewhere between part scheduled (CFR 121) and part charter (CFR 135) and the communities nearest the airport are asking questions.
What brings us here is that an audit completed in 2019 found flaws with the Voluntary Noise Program (VNP) at Love Field – not so much with its inherent value and intent, but with the way the City communicated, followed up and analyzed the noise data surrounding the airport to gauge the effectiveness of the program. To its credit, Love Field has reached out to stakeholders in the area to discuss changes to the VNP before committing to adjustments. A bit of wrangling as to which neighborhoods would be included resulted in a diverse representation of the neighborhoods most affected by aircraft noise, especially during nighttime hours.
But You Live Near An Airport!
Correct! However, this should not mean that the voluntary noise program at Love Field that has been in place since the 1980s should be dismissed. What it needs is modernization. The program states that larger aircraft of a certain weight are "encouraged" to use the Denton Avenue runway during the hours of 9pm-6am. At the time of implementation, there was little development around that area but overlooked and underserved neighborhoods still had to put up with aircraft noise during overnight hours that other neighborhoods didn't. Of course, things have changed and new development has cropped up on the Denton Avenue side of the airport and residents are starting to speak up about operations from both runways.
Those on the Lemmon Avenue side are not happy because, for convenience and fuel savings (although airlines and airport officials will always throw in safety), the short trot from the new terminal to the Lemmon Avenue runway is irresistible. A pilot's request for the Lemmon Avenue runway will likely be granted more often than not since this is at the discretion of controllers who tend to defer to the pilots when able or for safety reasons. This runway is shorter than the Denton Avenue side, yet is now the most favored runway since most gates and operators now face Lemmon Avenue. This was the biggest change for longtime residents on the Lemmon Avenue side of the airport.
Then there is this: Airlines can't operate an on-time schedule 100 percent of the time, so there is bleed-through traffic and noise on both runways well past the 9pm start of the "quiet" hours. Understandably, emergency aircraft and safety reasons will supersede any voluntary noise program but there is another wrinkle. Airlines are under a voluntary good-faith agreement not to schedule flights between 11pm and 6am. If you read that part about not being able to keep a 100-percent on-time schedule, you can guess what's been happening after 11pm.
So the issue isn't as much the noise from daily scheduled activity as it is the noise during the 7-9 hours of overnight "quiet" time that the original noise program was instituted to protect. Sometimes there are planes running so late that a 2am departure can wake residents up, leaving them only 4 hours to rest again before the 6am armada of flights resumes. Any time thunderstorms pass through the area late in the day, you are guaranteed flights well into the night.
What started out as a three-meeting process continues today as neighborhood representatives have revived the Love Field Citizens Action Committee on this issue and have engaged local leaders, Congressional representatives and the FAA. The stakeholder group is seeking answers from the FAA as to what is allowed to be implemented that doesn't run afoul of any law, and what exactly is the legal reason an airline, operating as part charter/part scheduled is allowed to fly international flights from Love Field when it is clearly prohibited in the 5-party agreement that lifted most Love Field restrictions.
Community stakeholders and the Department of Aviation are now engaged in a productive and civil discourse to modernize the noise program while honoring the airport's commitment to being a good neighbor and a successful, yet responsible economic engine for the area.
The stakeholder recommendations will be folded into the airport's recommendations for a presentation to the City Council which has final say in matters of the city-owned airport. The goal is to have both lists represent forward-thinking actions to consider or undertake that will equalize runway use, encourage operators to stick to their "no flights after 11pm" commitments and find ways to study noise levels around affected communities for future mitigation efforts. There is also language in the recommendations regarding takeoff, landing and departure/approach procedures that the groups can take to the FAA for consideration and approval. To spare you the walk through the weeds, there will be more details once the lists are approved by both parties.
The bottom line is that citizens near the airport expect airplanes to make noise but the drip-drip-drip of flights operating later and later into the night is a slippery slope that residents want straightened. The communities recognize the need to balance operations so that no one community is affected more than another. There are studies that can be pursued that could lead to insulation allowances for the most affected homes but other pursuits might be quicker and more effective. For instance, airlines could be encouraged to fly their most quiet aircraft during the later hours so that even if an operation is running very late, the added noise could be kept to a minimum. A 737-700 which makes up the majority of Southwest Airlines' fleet will make forty percent more noise than the latest 737MAX aircraft which the airline has on order and is trying to phase into its fleet mix. The good news is that over time, planes will get quieter and the number of gates at Love Field will remain at 20, limiting how many scheduled flights can operate from the airport.
Listen Up, Speak Up
It's no coincidence that having a 'friends' group to advocate for a better community through shared interests like a clean, safe Bachman Lake Park can have a spillover effect on matters that go beyond its borders. The recent welcome news that the City will not pursue a northern entrance to Love Field was born of community push-back – not in a void, but through education and research, and questioning decisions. The overarching need of the community for a better quality of life was a non-negotiable starting point and anything running counter to that was guaranteed to meet resistance. Yet resistance should not mean contention. It means having a seat at the table to help the conversation along with well-thought-out analyses and recommendations. It means listening.
The airport noise issue is a good example of making progress through civil discourse. The willingness of the Department of Aviation to engage its neighbors should be commended, but citizens must also speak up, engage and be ready to bring solutions of their own. As the adage goes, "If you don't have a seat at the table, you're probably on the menu." What's the best way to get a seat? Insist on one.
Stay alert ... and stay tuned.
Michael Cintron is a Bradford Estates resident and Friends of Bachman Lake member