Airline Pollution: The Sky Has Its Limits

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The Federal Aviation Agency has defined noise pollution as, among other things, noise loud enough to disturb a family's television watching.

Only a great culture could present its people with a dilemma like that.

But the problem, as defined, is pregnant with its own remedy. Airplanes too loud above your house? Well, then: TURN UP THE VOLUME ON THE TELEVISION SET.

There are less degenerate ways to solve the problem of airplane noise, an annoyance rapidly evolving into a menace. But do not look to the FAA or the aviation industry to help. Quality of life is not their department. Not for people in the air, and certainly not for those on the ground.

Magazines run cover stories about how awful air travel has become — crowded airports, crowded and overbooked planes, delayed flights, lousy service, awful food. Terrible. But the articles are talking about people in the air or in the airports, and not about the vastly greater numbers on the ground who are brutalized as the planes pass overhead. The solution to squalid air travel that experts propose is analogous to the fix (turn up the volume) when loud planes interrupt your television watching. All will be well if you build more runways, more airports, if you schedule more flights, and fling more profit-making, noise-making metal into the air.

We, the traveling public, are responsible; we are the people who fly, who use Federal Express and all the other businesses that need planes and airports in order to do their work. Millions of jobs depend on aviation. The general public requires the convenience of air travel (though it is often inconvenient), and we are still, for the most part, passive and stoical about the price paid by everyone in noise and other forms of pollution. Most people regard noise — plane noise, truck noise, city noise, siren noise, car alarm noise, and so on — as a fact of life, at least until it becomes continuous and intolerable, which, for many people, it already has. Or until it dawns on people, not only those living around airports but the millions more who live under the proliferating webs of flight path, that they are paying an unacceptable price in stress, lost sleep, impaired hearing, inability to concentrate, in their children's ability to learn and in the generally degraded quality of life that results when the mind is tormented by these intrusions.

The expansionist logic of airlines and airports assumes that the air around and above us has an infinitely absorptive capacity and can tolerate any pollution. We used to think that about rivers. It isn't true, in either case. Industries that pollute rivers have been forced to change, to clean up. The people who worry about pollution from planes (noise pollution, trails of fuel waste raining down) are no longer Luddite crackpots.

Long ago, Charles Lindbergh embodied the chivalric attraction of flight — the lone eagle, soaring without boundaries in the purity of the upper air: "O, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/ and climbed the sky on laughter-silvered wings." The aviation industry, with a sort of corrupt nostalgia, still uses rhetoric about "the freedom to fly." But Lindbergh ultimately became profoundly disgusted with the industry that he had pioneered. He ended life regarding air travel as mere squalor and aviation in general as one of the world's serious environmental problems.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Americans almost genially tolerated the idea of a man or woman having five or six drinks, or more, and driving home a little blurry, and maybe — oops! — banging into something along the way. But the issue came to critical mass in the public mind, thanks mainly to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and now you can do time for such behavior.

Aviation noise, and noise pollution in general, are issues that will reach critical mass in the next few years. Not long ago, a "noise consultant" named Mark Johnson, working for Landrum & Brown, addressed a planning meeting for the expansion of the Albany, N.Y., airport. He wagged his eyebrows and declared: "We're not saying that people who complain about noise are out of their minds. Let's just say it's a sociological problem." As more and more people are driven out of their minds by noise, Johnson will find that it has become a political problem as well, and therefore an industry problem. Eventually, the FAA will be forced to abandon its disgracefully intimate collusion with the aviation industry.