A reporter spends the night under O’Hare’s new air traffic patterns – and doesn’t report much

After recently learning of an uptick in complaints regarding airplane noise around O’Hare Airport, one reporter spends the night in an affected neighborhood:

On the horizon are five blinking lights, all destined for the runway that parallels Thorndale Avenue, which now handles almost half of overnight arrivals. A little south, coming in toward the Lawrence Avenue runway, are two more jets. As they converge overhead, it looks as if the Northwest Side were in the midst of an alien invasion.

At one point, the planes coming in pass overhead at the same time, and the whines of the engines bounce off each other in stereo. JP launches the noise monitor app on his phone and registers 86 decibels, which, according to the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, is roughly equal to the sound of a screaming child. The FAA claims the metric for “significant” jet noise—meaning the amount at which homeowners can be eligible for soundproofing subsidies—is a day-night sound level average of 65 decibels. But only those residences within the FAA’s noise contour map (Sauganash Woods and most other Northwest Side neighborhoods are not) qualify for the soundproofing…

Evening settles in, and JP and I sit in his family room to watch the Bears-Packers game. Every once in a while, a plane whizzes by, which actually provides a welcome distraction from the historic pummeling the Packers are giving the Bears. After the game, my hosts head to bed, and I try to get some sleep on the couch.

A few minutes later, around 11, the jets start rumbling by again, often in 30-second intervals. Using radar and tracking apps on my iPhone, I watch the dots as they approach: At 11:55, a Boeing 747 Yangtze River Express from Shanghai blows in at 1,300 feet. At 11:56, an Airbus from Phoenix roars over the house. The last plane I see on the screen before dozing off at 12:30 a.m. is a Cessna coming in from Green Bay. (Jay Cutler’s private jet?)

The general theme of the report is that some people’s lives are affected by these changes at O’Hare. At most, it suggests at least a few families, businesses, and communities are affected. But, we don’t hear if life is unbearable. We don’t hear if everyone in these neighborhoods and communities feels the same way. We don’t get a broader view from elsewhere in the region. We get a narrow slice of life with an uncertain conclusion.

Articles like these tend to draw my sociological attention because this one addresses (a) an area experiencing some significant change, which leads to differing reactions from people and (b) the issues at O’Hare represent an opportunity to discuss metropolitan-wide issues. Certainly, other areas in the country have similar issues, whether it is from airport noise or an undesirable facility nearby or because the powers that be decided to change things for the good of the majority. This particular case at O’Hare could provide an interesting comparison to see exactly how this balance between individuals, communities, and the region plays out. Yet, most of the media coverage I’ve seen so far tends to focus on individual complaints or relatively small communities.

When a few people generate most of the complaints about a public nuisance

The newest runway at O’Hare Airport has generated more noise complaints than ever. However, a good portion of the complaints come from a small number of people.

She now ranks among the area’s most prolific complainers and is one of 11 people responsible for 44 percent of the noise complaints leveled in August, according to the city’s Department of Aviation.

The city, which operates the airport, pokes at her serial reporting in its monthly report by isolating the number of complaints from a single address in various towns. It’s a move meant to downplay the significant surge in noise complaints since the airport’s fourth east-west runway opened last fall, but it only seems to energize Morong…

Chicago tallied 138,106 complaints during the first eight months of the year, according to the Department of Aviation. That figure surpassed the total number of noise complaints from 2007 to 2013.

The city, however, literally puts an asterisk next to this year’s numbers in monthly reports and notes that a few addresses are responsible for thousands of complaints. The August report, for example, states that 11 addresses were responsible for more than 13,000 complaints during that 31-day period…

But even excluding the serial reporters, the city still logged about 16,000 complaints in August, about eight times the number it received in August 2013.

There are two trends going on here:

1. The overall number of complaints is still up, even without the more serial complainers. This could mean several things: there are more people now affected by noise, a wider range of people are complaining, and/or this system of filing complaints online has caught on.

2. A lot of the complaints are generated by outliers, including the main woman in the story who peaked one day at 600 complaints. It is interesting that the City of Chicago has taken to pointing this out, probably in an attempt to

This is not an easy issue to solve. The runway issues and O’Hare’s path to being the world’s busiest airport again mean that there is more flight traffic and more noise. This is not desirable for some residents who feel like they are not heard. Yet, it is probably good for the whole region as Chicago tries to build on its transportation advantages. What might the residents accept as “being heard”? Changing whole traffic patterns or efforts at limiting the sound? Balancing local and regional interests is often very difficult but I don’t see how this is going to get much better for the residents.