Queens Anti-Noise Warriors Score a Hard-Fought Victory

Bayside is quiet once again thanks in part to the work of Janet Mceneany and her air noise advocacy group, Queens Quiet Skies

(Steven Pisano)

Without warning, the planes arrived. Every few minutes, another one would roar over the northeastern Queens home of Janet Mceneany. She had moved to Bayside, a quaint neighborhood of single family homes and tree-lined streets, to get away from big city life, including it’s noise. This was not what she had expected.

Mceneany didn’t know it yet, but the onslaught of air traffic on that spring morning in 2012 was a result of NextGen, a modernization initiative by the Federal Aviation Administration. Under the program, a new satellite-based navigation system guides planes closer together and closer to the ground. It’s stated goal is to improve efficiency and reduce flight times, but one consequence was more noise for the neighborhoods directly underneath. Mceneany was under one of these routes, a previously little-used flight path codenamed TNNIS after its original purpose to divert planes during the U.S. Open.

To Mceneany, this didn’t seem fair. A grandmother, with curly gray hair and a wide smile, Mceneany has a pugnacious spirit. She decided to fight.

Six years later, she seems to be winning. Last last year, the FAA agreed to limit use of the TNNIS route. “Everybody told me when I started, we would never do be able to change anything,” she said, “And that is not true.” After six years of jet engines roaring overhead, it is finally quiet in Bayside.

The seeds of this victory go back to 2012, when Mceneany stood up at her local community board and invited everyone to the Terrace Diner to discuss the noise. They filled the place and the diner soon became the unofficial headquarters of Mceneany’s new organization, Queens Quiet Skies.

Queens Quiet Skies joined a cluster of similar groups across the both New York and the nation, all protesting NextGen and demanding relief.

The group made a stir. They were featured in The New York Times and then the local media, such as WPIX-TV. “PIX’s news lead was an airplane over my house at 1300 feet, 85 decibels, once a minute,” Mceneany said. As each passed, according to Mceneany, the reporter would yell out “Here comes another one!”

At first, the FAA did not appear to take Mceneany’s—or anyone’s—criticism seriously. In 2015, Mceneany went to speak at a conference hosted by the University of California, Davis. When she took the lectern, the FAA’s representatives filed out. “They made a conga line out the door,” she said.

Still, if the FFA administrators thought they could simply ignore Mceneany until she went away, they were wrong.

Mceneany was born in Brooklyn. She studied commercial art in high school, but her career would be more influenced by the activism of the period. It was the late 60s, and garbage and transit workers were successfully striking for higher wages. She set her sights on becoming an arbitrator. When Mceneany’s guidance counselor refused to sign her application to Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations—‘Girl’s don’t do that,’ Mceneany remembers being told—she went home and said to her father, “We should sue the city of New York.”

She took a circuitous route through college and then law school—she raised her first child in the meantime—but Mceneany would eventually fulfill her dream of becoming a arbitrator, working for two decades first for the city and then herself, mediating disputes for private corporations. In 2015, she would become a federal judge.

These days, when Mceneany emails her local officials, they take notice. She has read bills with them over the phone, she said. “I think Janet and Queens Quiet Skies work has been definitely influential,” said Ed Braunstein, the assemblyman for Mceneany’s district.

One reason: Mceneany was writing not just to the FAA and elected officials, but also to a mailing list of 10,000 people. “How should I put this,” said Brian Will, an early member of Queens Quiet Skies. After a pause, he completes the thought: “Powerful. There are a lot of powerful people in Queens who are afraid of her.”

Mceneany has an explanation. “When you have a lot of membership people write newspaper articles about you, you’re on TV, you have rallies and people come. Then the elected officials say, ‘Well, we better listen to them,’” said Mceneany. Grace Meng, her local congresswoman, was founding co-chair of the Quiet Skies Caucus, a group of forty members of congress that are fighting aircraft noise.

By 2014, the nascent movement had gained ground but progress was slow. The Port Authority installed new noise monitors around the three major airports and released a website to track their measurements. But the FAA still wasn’t admitting that NextGen was the source of the problem.

Meanwhile, other powerful interests were taking notice. An air-travel advocacy group called The Global Gateway Alliance—one of its board members was Jared Kushner—released a report in 2013 trumpeting the fuel savings and emission reductions of the TNNIS flight path. They launched a press blitz.

But in 2015, Queens Quiet Skies had a breakthrough, thanks to Brian Will.

Will is a marine scientist with a knack for numbers. He met Mceneany early on when he began showing up to her group’s meetings, sharing videos of planes over his home. Two of his nephews developed speech problems growing up in Flushing, and Will blamed the airline noise. He wanted to do something about it.

Will requested and eventually obtained a huge trove of flight data from the Port Authority that showed air traffic over their neighborhood had nearly doubled since NextGen’s implementation.

Will’s work attracted the attention of Peter Muennig, a public health professor at Columbia. Muennig lived in northeastern Queens too and had been wondering about the air noise. He thought Will’s data might help prove it was unhealthy.

The pair teamed up to work on a research paper. Last year, they came to a striking conclusion: TNNIS had taken a year off the lives of their neighbors living underneath. The study found that the route wasn’t just an annoyance, it was dangerous. “I would say that NextGen is having an adverse overall effect. The reason for this is not just that it is putting aircraft over populated areas. It is more that it is putting aircraft over populated areas that never expected the noise,” Muennig wrote in an email to NYCityLens.

Soon after the study’s publication, the FAA backed down and agreed to reduce usage of the route.

Mceneany confirms this. Last month, the planes stopped coming. “They couldn’t debunk our public health study,” she said. “They said they’re gonna start managing the noise. And they’ve managed it away.”

Still, Mceneany is reluctant to celebrate. “Where is it going?” she wonders. “If the noise is not with us, it’s got to be with someone else.”

This fact hasn’t gone unnoticed among other advocacy groups. Len Schaier lives in Nassau County and has followed the issue for over two decades. “Their agenda is to reduce the effect of the TNNIS climb,” he said, referring to Mceneany and Queens Quiet Skies. “They’re not looking at what happens to other places.”

Jana Goldenberg, co-founder of Plane Sense 4 Long Island, said that the noise in her neighborhood is only getting worse. “It is now 10 times worse than it was in 2012,” she said.

Goldenberg reports hearing up to 40 or 50 planes in a single hour. “The TNNIS climb is not used as regularly as the flight paths that are hitting Nassau County. So those people that were complaining weren’t hit every day,” she added.

Mceneany and Goldenberg work together closely, but that isn’t true for all the advocates fighting for less noise.

In 2014, Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the creation of community roundtables to work with aviation officials on the noise issue. But community groups squabbled over how many: Mceneany wanted one, others argued for two to represent JFK and LaGuardia.

At a community meeting to discuss the roundtable’s structure in 2017, a representative of Councilman Gregory Meeks of Jamaica argued that politicians and advocates were ignoring the needs of poorer neighborhoods around JFK.

The infighting hasn’t been easy on Mceneany, she said. “I become so cynical and jaded.”

She’s now pondering a move to Pasadena. There’s no airplanes there, she jokes. Which begs a question: After all these years, why didn’t she simply pack up and move?

“I didn’t think that it was right for the airline industry to run me out of my house,” she said. “It was better to stand up and fight.”

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9 Responses to "Queens Anti-Noise Warriors Score a Hard-Fought Victory"

  1. Kenneth Phillips  February 14, 2019 at 2:12 pm

    The exact same thing is happening around BWI in Columbia Maryland. They are ignoring the lower income communities and flying all of the flights over the lowest income apartments and homes. Fortunately the state and county have recognized this impact on our lives and have taken FAA to court. But victory is far from certain. I have noise data showing that the jet departures create thousands of times more noise than a local highway at over 10 miles from BWI, certainly far more than before NextGen, and I plan to publish it soon. The NextGen altitudes and flights over a single path increase the 65dB zone by about 10-fold area over previous departure procedures. However, there was no warning, no community study, no community involvement, and none of our political leaders seemed to care about the problem until it was too late. Recent studies have shown that loud noise causes heart problems and problems for children in school. These flights go over a number of elementary, middle, and high schools in Columbia. Not to mention that you can’t possibly sleep past 6 a.m. due to the large number of flights from commuters seeking to fly out early in the morning over the exact same flight path over and over all morning, whether going to California, Tennessee, or Illinois. In addition, the arrival flights are coming in under the mixing layer, around 1500-2500 feet as far as 10 miles from the airport. This most certainly is dumping the equivalent of a Los Angeles freeway in ultrafine kerosene particles on the residents who live under this path. All without any warning, without any public involvement, without any real study. NextGen is happening at not just 1 or 2 airports, but dozens around the country. This must be one of the greatest environmental disasters since Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, taking thousands of years off the lives of hard-working American families who live in the previously unaffected communities that are 5-25 miles from these airports. The FAA, the airline industry, and perpetrators of this heinous crime against Americans should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for having conspired to cover up what they are doing, all for the sake of saving a few billion dollars in fuel costs for the industry. It is a case of clear-cut greed and another sad chapter for American industry.

    Reply
  2. AP  February 14, 2019 at 4:17 pm

    Mr Manfield

    I have been involved in Aviation for 35+ years and the individuals mentioned in this article had nothing to do with this FAA decision. This was spearheaded by the hard work of a few individuals on the NY Community Aviation Roundtable (NYCAR).

    This was a slap in the face to those people. I would recommend that you reach out to NYCAR to get the real story.

    Reply
  3. Elaine Miller  February 15, 2019 at 8:29 am

    Mr. Manfield,
    I would like to know your affiliation with NYCAR since I am a member.

    Reply
  4. Ryan  February 15, 2019 at 4:26 pm

    AP
    Can you let everyone know where you are getting this information?
    Clearly you did not attend the meeeting when the FAA spoke about the change in the TNNIS. The whole committee was surprised so clearly they had nothing to do with the change and all to do with Queens Quiet Skies!!

    Reply
  5. Tony Verreos  February 19, 2019 at 10:12 pm

    Mr. Kenneth Phillips is right. Thanks! Unfortunately, too few read, now, and care to demand changes. Too many think – “what do you expect to do with the planes?” Answer – move them back to where they came from pre NextGen for starters. Then demand that before new flight path and procedures changes are made in the future the FAA actually do its job: modeling the noise impacts, and the chemical fallout impacts, and demonstrate to the larger community that any changes they suggest, are solidly backed up by data proving they will make it better not worse.

    Lies, lies, and more lies. The FAA has spent some $40 billion of your hard earned tax money already on what? Much of it is airport infrastructure such as new towers, and runways, but also hiring and training Air Traffic Controllers, chopping down trees near runways, and building out a satellite GPS navigation control system. Not because the old ground based radar was failing, just a shinny new toy. We have no problem switching to new technology where there is demonstrated value to the taxpayers, however, in this case, it appears the primary value is to the FAA itself, and the aviation industry. The FAA bases all of it’s actions on Safety and Efficiency, yet it has not delivered improvements on either. What the FAA has done is move decades old
    established flight patterns designed to avoid flying over densely populated areas to connect the dots in shorter straight lines. The GPS makes it easy for one plane to follow another just like cars do on a freeway. The pollution from planes is now worse than from cars. If there is any in air emergency, a pilot now has even less time to react to protect the lives of crew, passengers, and people on the ground. That is not improved safety! The FAA claims great fuel savings translating into millions of dollars, and less pollution, but where is the independent study to prove it? Today more flights are cancelled, late, and stuck in holding patterns, because there is no where to land. And when planes dump fuel, where does all of that end up? We don’t normally ask our MDs to do special blood or urine tests to looks for the pollutants that we breathe and ingest – it’s just not on our radar unless we are already sick!

    Congress has many fine members serving us, but unfortunately, the majority seem more intent on serving aviation lobbies, and making weak excuses for not acting forcefully to protect us. They keep passing requirement for more studies – enough! We need action not one new delay after another for additional studies which all confirm what has already been learned both in the USA and EU over a decade ago.

    The FAA is full of good people who want nothing more than to serve the public and keep their high paying jobs. The problem is not how to keep the planes from crashing – the FAA is very good at that. The problem is the FAA stopped regulating long ago, and became a “captured agency” where they view the aviation industry as their partners and customers, and how do they view the American public?
    as unimportant and occasional collateral damage.

    Those of us who are not anti aviation, are simply demanding fairness, not a total elimination of jets, noise, and chemical poisoning, just a fair and reasonable treatment.

    If you are one of those 10,000,000 on Judge Janet Mceneany’s email list, please sign our national petition, and share it with your friends, so together we may all fight back.

    https://petitions.moveon.org/sign/stop-jet-noise-now-a?source=c.em.cp&r_by=16275828

    Reply
  6. Alan Wright  February 20, 2019 at 9:59 am

    I live under the Logan Airport Runway 27 departure flight path in Boston. A community group in cahoots with the FAA locked us into a restricted 6 nm flight corridor in 1996 that created an environmental injustice by concentrating traffic over a dense inner city area and leaving a lightly populated affluent area free of any traffic. The justification was that any other path would create fanning and allow the FAA to funnel more traffic through. Nevertheless, due to pilot discretion a lot of dispersion existed spreading the burden. Then RNAV arrived and concentrated the traffic. We are now engaged in a battle to move a waypoint back and open the flight corridor to more dispersion. RNAV technology allows for more equitable flight paths to be designed, controlled and maintained to a high degree of compliance that spreads the burden. The only barrier is the intransigence of the FAA, which as a regulator is captive to the airline industry. What is needed is to decouple air traffic policy from air traffic control. Federal air transportation policy needs to have a third leg to the stool, that is, to include and give equal weight to the environmental impact of air traffic on the population living underneath.

    Reply
  7. Rebecca Gorlin  February 20, 2019 at 10:41 am

    It’s been a huge problem in parts of Boston, too.

    Reply
  8. Elaine Miller  February 22, 2019 at 8:13 am

    I must correct my mistake in my original post. I did not direct the question to Mr. Manfield but rather to AP who stated that QQS and the people in the article had nothing to do with the FAA’s decision. I am a member of NYCAR so I would like to know AP’s affiliation with NYCAR and how he/she got the information that a few individuals spearheaded the work. If he/she is not a member then how do you know these people? The previous statement that the members of the Roundtable were “surprised” is accurate since I was there. Thanks to the study headed by QQS it brought to light the dangers we are exposed to.

    Reply
  9. Anne Cowles  February 26, 2019 at 9:40 am

    Agreed.😢

    Reply

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