Queens Anti-Noise Warriors Score a Hard-Fought Victory

(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.”