Does the FAA’s aviation safety mission extend to those on the ground?

Photo credit: SevenStorm JUHASZIMRUS

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Federal Aviation Administration’s mission is to provide the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.

I recently flew to San Francisco to visit family and the airplane was the infamous Boeing 737 MAX, the aircraft model linked to two crashes involving the loss of hundreds of lives. Government investigations concluded that the FAA had failed in its safety mission, allowing Boeing too much leeway in modifying key systems that led to the crashes. I hoped that the plane I was flying on was safe, and I wondered whether the FAA’s safety mission extended to those living on the ground, near airports or under flight paths.

As I presented at the 183rd meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Nashville last year, the Environmental Protection Agency’s mission is to protect human health and the environment. The EPA has determined that a safe noise level for the public is a day-night level (LDN or DNL) of 55 decibels (dB). Because of the adverse effects of noise on sleep, the day-night level adjusts sound measurements by adding a 10 dB penalty for nighttime noise between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. The FAA, however, thinks that aircraft sound levels of DNL 65 A-weighted decibels (dBA) are compatible with residential land use. Clearly, what the FAA thinks is satisfactory for people living near airports and under flight paths exceeds the EPA’s safe noise exposure level.

Fortunately, I flew to San Francisco and back home without incident. As The Atlantics James Fallows, an instrument rated pilot, wrote in The New York Times Book Review in November, air travel is extremely safe. “Over the past 13 years, through more than 10 billion passenger journeys, a total of two people have died in U.S. airline accidents.”

I only wish the FAA’s focus on safety extended to those living on the ground.

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