South Minneapolis residents long plagued by airport noise are intensifying their efforts to let officials know they are not happy — particularly with an uptick in flights passing over at night and at low altitudes.
In June, there were more complaints filed with the Metropolitan Airports Commission about planes coming and going from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport than in any month over the past three and a half years. Of the more than 12,800 complaints lodged, the largest number of them — about 45 percent — came from Minneapolis. And it wasn’t just a handful of people calling constantly; the month was the second-highest since 2012 in terms of the number of Minneapolis residents reporting noise problems.
Noise complaints typically rise along with the temperature in the spring and spike in the late summer, when more people are outside and planes are flying less efficiently in hot, humid air. That trend has been building in recent years, particularly in Minneapolis, where complaints in the spring months have nearly quadrupled between 2012 and 2015. The number of people filing complaints has roughly tripled.
Council Member John Quincy, who represents the city on an airport noise advisory committee, said residents are getting more savvy about how to report particularly problematic noise. But he said the increase in complaints can also be attributed to ongoing concerns about how frequently planes are coming and going from an airport tucked in the middle of a heavily populated area — and about particular neighborhoods and cities bearing the brunt of the traffic.
“Our general philosophy remains the same: it should be a shared burden,” he said.
Minneapolis’ battle against airport noise goes back decades and involves major lawsuits, demonstrations by pajama-clad residents at the airport and thousands of residents getting noise-proofing improvements to their homes. In recent years, city leaders, neighbors and officials from the airport, airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) discussed and debated where planes should take off and land, how they should turn as they rise above the Twin Cities and how frequently they should fly.
Some of those conversations have yielded commitments from the airport and airlines to look into putting more flights over less-populated areas or making other adjustments that could cut down on noise. The airport recently started publishing a monthly report on runway use, following requests from the city and community members. But with ongoing variation in flight schedules and patterns because of consumer demand, weather and other factors, no one seems ready to declare a complete victory.
City officials said they’ve seen a recent increase in complaints about air traffic over south Minneapolis in the overnight hours, and statistics from the Airports Commission corroborate those concerns. In the first six months of the year, departures and arrivals between 10:30 p.m. and 6 a.m. increased by 13 percent. That is particularly notable because the overall number of flights is trending down. In the same six-month comparison, total flights decreased by 3 percent.
Jim Spensley, president of the South Metro Airport Action Council, said the increase could be a factor in some of the complaints from residents. But he suspects flights in the “shoulder” period, at the end and the start of the day, are just a drop in the bucket of the bigger trends he sees at the airport.
“My analysis shows that there’s a few more planes and a few more of them at the shoulder hours and all of them lower, and that is the reason for the complaints. There may be even noisier planes flying over a home at 4 o’clock, but there’s no one home to notice,” he said.
Dana Nelson, the Airports Commission’s manager of noise, environment and planning, said officials are just beginning to study the altitude at which planes are flying over Minneapolis and other nearby cities. But she said heavier planes — something Quincy said the airport is seeing more of — take longer to rise to cruising altitude, which means they fly lower over the Twin Cities.
Nelson said she often hears from residents who believe airlines try to fly low to be more efficient. She said it’s actually the opposite; pilots try to get as much space as possible between them and the ground right away.
“They are trying to get up and out as quickly as possible,” she said.
Nelson said she plans to share some of her research on flight altitude at next week’s regular meeting of the Noise Oversight Committee.
In the meantime, city officials and community leaders say they are continuing to push for residents to file complaints, when warranted.
“It’s the city’s position to encourage people to make complaints,” Quincy said. “Just because you see an airplane, don’t report it, but if it disturbs you, report it.”
While the reporting is valuable for officials trying to negotiate with federal aviation officials or airlines, Quincy cautions that complaints don’t necessarily add up to immediate change.
Doris Overby, who lives in the Standish neighborhood, said she’s not surprised more people are speaking up about noise.
“The reason is it’s happening so much now that more of us have to get involved,” she said. “We just have to because it’s just ruining our ability to live in this neighborhood.”
Still, Overby has filed multiple complaints and is disappointed with the “form letter” responses she’s received. While she’s optimistic about getting quieter skies, she’s frustrated that no one seems willing to make major changes.
“They send us form letters saying that everything is the same,” she said.