October 17, 2016

Airport Noise NIMBYism

An Empirical Investigation

It would be a mistake to allow the preferences of a vocal but minuscule minority of citizens, however sympathetic their circumstances, to impede much-needed improvements in aviation.

Key materials

Every growing city encounters criticism from residents who will settle for little else but the status quo. Local governments intent on building or expanding infrastructure must contend with citizens opposed to the inconvenience and nuisance of increased construction, more neighbors, and heavier traffic. This hostility to expansion, called “NIMBYism” (not in my backyard), can be a barrier to denser development, lower housing prices, and ultimately economic growth.

But NIMBYism extends beyond opposition to urban development, and its consequences can hinder economic growth in nonobvious ways. In this policy brief, we explore a particular category of NIMBY complaints surrounding airport noise. Airport noise can be a nuisance, but it is also necessary for economic activity in the modern world. We evaluate noise complaint data from a selection of US airports to quantify opposition to airport noise. We find that the source of airport noise complaints is highly concentrated in a few dedicated complainers.

Airport noise policy must strike a reasonable balance between noise abatement and the economic benefits associated with noisy airplane takeoffs and landings. However, because the majority of noise complaints come from a small number of loud objectors, there is a danger that this balance has been tilted too far in the direction of noise abatement. We hope that increasing awareness of the lopsided distribution of noise complaints can help promote noise standards that strike an appropriate balance and facilitate the advancement of faster and cheaper commercial flight.

Many Complaints Come from a Small Number of Callers

Most airports in the United States allow the public to submit noise complaints through dedicated hotlines and online portals. Nearly all of the country’s largest airports publish data on the calls they receive, but this information varies in thoroughness. Some airport authorities, such as the Port of Seattle, allow public access to each complainant’s name, their personal information, and a summary of the call. Others, like Boston’s Massport, only publish the number of complaints received and the number of unique callers. But even this summary information is useful; data from Massport on Boston Logan International Airport still illustrate the distribution and origin of complaints.

Generally, a very small number of people account for a disproportionately high share of the total number of noise complaints. In 2015, for example, 6,852 of the 8,760 complaints submitted to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport originated from one residence in the affluent Foxhall neighborhood of northwest Washington, DC. The residents of that particular house called Reagan National to express irritation about aircraft noise an average of almost 19 times per day during 2015. Other major airports report similar trends. In Seattle’s detailed call-by-call lists, one individual complains so frequently that her grievances are not transcribed in full but simply tallied at the end of the month. While airport employees provide summaries of other calls, the description of this particular individual’s calls is, “Same complaint over and over. Records a/c flying over.”

Relative to other large US airports, San Francisco International Airport receives an enormous number of complaints each year. In 2015, it registered 890,376 complaints. Predictably, we find that these complaints were not lodged by a correspondingly large number of people; rather, hundreds of thousands of calls came from just 9,561 callers. Even if calls were uniformly distributed among these callers, each would still have had to place 93 calls. But as with other US airports, San Francisco’s complaint records show a high degree of concentration among a very small subset of total callers. In October 2015, 53 Portola Valley, CA, residents placed 25,259 calls to the airport—nearly 477 per person. Similarly, three residents of Daly City placed 1,034 calls in December 2015, and six Woodside callers complained 2,432 times in November. 

Table 1 summarizes the concentration of noise complaints registered at several large US airports. Figure 1 shows the monthly concentration of noise complaints over the course of 2015 at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas.

Small Number of Callers Have Disproportionate Impact

Airport noise complaint data paints a startling picture. A handful of individuals are responsible for most of the noise complaints at most airports we examine. Some of these individuals do not appear to live particularly close to the airports to which they are complaining. For example, one individual in Strasburg, CO, 30 miles from Denver International Airport, complained 3,555 times in 2015, an average of 9.7 times per day. One individual in La Selva Beach, CA, about 55 miles from San Francisco International Airport, complained about airport noise 186 times during October 2015.

There are worrisome signs that this small, frustrated minority of citizens is affecting aviation policy. In recent decades, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has imposed progressively more stringent noise standards on aircraft operating in US airspace. While noise abatement is desirable, it can have significant costs—particularly on the fuel efficiency of aircraft—resulting not only in higher carbon emissions but also in higher ticket prices. It is troubling that a tiny but vocal group is potentially driving policy. While we do not have data on grievances lodged directly to the FAA or to members of Congress, it is probable that those airport noise complaints follow a similar pattern.

Airport Noise and Fuel Efficiency

Airport noise is entangled with fuel efficiency in at least two ways. First, the FAA’s NextGen airspace modernization program will enable aircraft to travel along denser and more direct routes, particularly on approach for landing. NextGen will remove much of the need for circling above the airport in holding patterns, and it allows aircraft to descend more gradually, saving valuable fuel. However, denser and more gradual approaches also correspond to more noise on the ground under approach paths to the airport. Airports undergoing NextGen implementation have experienced a significant uptick in noise complaints.

Second, airport noise standards are very important for fuel efficiency gains on potential new supersonic aircraft. Aircraft are more fuel efficient when they can take off at full throttle, and these gains in efficiency are of particular importance when aircraft are climbing to the high cruise speeds and altitudes of supersonic planes. Yet in the FAA’s most recent policy statement on supersonics, the agency said it “would propose that any future supersonic airplane produce no greater noise impact on a community than a subsonic airplane.” Subsonic noise type certification requirements are quite strict, and they will become stricter still in 2018. Holding supersonic aircraft to subsonic noise standards would hamper the viability of the new market. Insofar as the FAA is adopting such a strict stance in response to the volume of airport noise complaints, it is overweighting the opinions of a small, concentrated minority of citizens at the expense of the environment and of those who would benefit from affordable supersonic flight.

Options for Addressing Airport Noise

Policymakers can address airport noise in several ways. One option is for airports to acquire residential land below flight paths. Obviously, it would be impractical for airports to acquire land to address complaints originating from up to 50 miles away from the airport. Nevertheless, numerous airports have bought up nearby land to reduce the effect of noise on people nearby. A second approach is to make noise standards more severe, creating mandatory retirement of the existing fleet of airplanes. This was done in the 1990s as the Stage 2 noise standard was replaced with Stage 3. Economist Stephen A. Morrison and his coauthors estimate that the benefits of the phaseout, in terms of property values for homeowners, were $5 billion less than the costs to airlines, in terms of the reduced life of their capital.

A third approach is to subsidize and otherwise support the installation of more and better insulation in homes affected by airport noise. Aerospace engineer Philip J. Wolfe and his coauthors estimate that this is more cost-effective than land acquisition or mandatory retirement. There are a number of insulation programs run by airports around the country. 

Finally, a noise tax could help to efficiently discourage the production of noise without outright banning it, and revenues could be used to fund insulation programs. This is a better strategy than existing FAA policy of continuing to increase noise standards, perhaps in response to a high volume of complaints.


It would be a mistake to allow the preferences of a vocal but minuscule minority of citizens, however sympathetic their circumstances, to impede much-needed improvements in aviation. Airport noise standards are already quite strict, and they create real economic and environmental costs associated with lower aircraft fuel efficiency. While our analysis cannot recommend a precise noise standard, we are concerned that a handful of callers—who contact not only airports but also the FAA and congressional offices—have unduly influenced existing standards. Policymakers should be acutely aware of the distribution of calls before taking further action on airport noise.