Before the pandemic ravaged the airline industry, a typical summer afternoon involved a string of jetliners descending over John Farrell’s south Minneapolis home every two minutes or so.
The din usually dissipated about three hours later, around dinnertime.
“It was noisy,” said Farrell, who lives under the approach of the airport’s south parallel runway.
The COVID-19 outbreak may have resulted in a devastating global health crisis, but the unexpected side effect is that complaints related to noisy aircraft landing and departing from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) have fallen precipitously. And that has given some residents who live near the airport’s flight path some blessed quiet this summer — a chance to converse uninterrupted at barbecues and to open windows at night without a Boeing 737 roaring overhead.
It’s an unprecedented type of calm, too. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the country’s commercial airspace was shut down for three days. But, as the Metropolitan Airports Commission’s (MAC) Brad Juffer notes, “things started up pretty quickly” afterward as safety measures were put in place to appease jittery travelers.
As the pandemic took hold this spring, “it was wildly different for the first couple of weeks,” Farrell said of the noise levels.
Helen Leslie, who has lived in Eagan for more than 30 years, is a bit more direct: “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, it was so lovely.”
At the height of the outbreak this spring, air traffic declined by up to 75% at MSP, which served 40 million passengers last year, a historic high.
“We expected operations at the airport to drop off and when it did, it was like a rock,” said Juffer, who is the MAC’s manager of community relations.
But as COVID-19 restrictions ease and more people take to the skies, flights have steadily increased in the past month. And,so have noise complaints lodged with the MAC, which owns and operates MSP.
The number of complaints filed with the MAC in May declined 80% when compared with the same period last year. But as flight takeoffs and landings increased 18% between May and June, complaints ticked up by 23%, as well.
Earlier this month, MAC officials, along with representatives from Delta Air Lines and airport concessionaires, unveiled precautions. But passenger volume at U.S. airlines nationwide still remain 74% below last year’s levels, according to the industry group Airlines for America.
As the industry recovers, there will likely be a strong psychological reaction among residents affected by the resumption of noise, said Joseph Schwieterman, an aviation expert at DePaul University in Chicago.
“People react more when things get worse than when they get better,” Schwieterman said. “There could be a surge in complaints. When people grow accustomed to quiet backyard barbecues suddenly go back to previous problems, it creates a lot of stress.”
Leslie said flights over the past month “are right back where they were” before the pandemic. Efforts by residents to convince the MAC and the Federal Aviation Administration to change the flight paths over Eagan, she said, were “pretty much a waste of time.”
Years of neighborhood noise
Because of its urban location, MSP has long had an uneasy, and sometimes litigious, relationship with its neighbors. Residents living in Minneapolis, Eagan, Inver Grove Heights and Richfield appear to be the most aggrieved, according to noise complaints filed with the MAC over the past year.
Over the past two decades, the MAC has paid nearly a half-billion dollars for building improvements for about 15,000 houses, apartments and schools to help mitigate noise. “We have one of the most unique and expansive programs in the country,” Juffer said.
But Airlines for America said recently it’s unlikely there will be a return of passenger volume to pre-pandemic levels before 2023, so noise levels at MSP may remain a bit suppressed when compared to boom times. And it’s still too soon to tell how societal changes prompted by the virus and its economic fallout will affect air travel.
A surge in telecommuting may have convinced some companies that business travel isn’t as necessary as before, and fear of a second virus spike, particularly in Florida and Texas, locations popular with MSP travelers, could dampen demand for leisure flights.
But on the flip side, “people now working from home may be really surprised at the level of noise,” coming from aircraft, said Steve Kittleson, a co-founder of MSP FairSkies Coalition, a local watchdog group. “Working from home could be a real eye-opener for residents and for the MAC.”
In addition, as more people grow accustomed to shopping online, cargo flights have increased at MSP, Juffer said, particularly for UPS and FedEx. Plus, Sun Country Airlines began flying cargo for Amazon last spring.
Juffer added that these flights “often aren’t as quiet,” but noted that MSP isn’t considered a big hub for cargo.
Noise critics say cargo flights fly at all hours and they are lower and louder than commercial planes.
“When FedEx and UPS planes go overheard, the joke in our family is, ‘Which one is it?’ ” Farrell laughs. After more than 20 years living beneath the airport’s flight path, he said, the family can make the distinction.