Airport noise can be an emotionally volatile issue in municipal politics. However, Robert Grotell thinks data, not emotion, should drive decisions about airport and air route noise abatement.
Grotell is president of PlaneNoise, a firm that designs and implements empirical aircraft noise complaint measuring, tracking and mapping tools being used in the New York and Boston metropolitan and suburban areas as well as Naples, Fla. “We are a small business but we are growing,” he said. During the first week in June, PlaneNoise processed more than 2,700 aircraft noise complaints in the limited markets it currently serves.
Grotell worked transportation issues in metropolitan government for decades. He got the idea for PlaneNoise shortly after being appointed special advisor for the Eastern Region Helicopter Council (ERHC) in 2006, mainly to handle the noise issue. “We handled complaints the way airports used to do it, with a phone number and an answering machine. Play back the messages, write down the information and follow up–or not. I thought there has to be a better way,” he said.
“Before this organized method of noise complaints [PlaneNoise], complaints were basically anecdotal. You couldn’t spot any trends. I am a data-oriented person. To solve a problem you first have to identify what the issues are. A lot of times, elected officials and community groups point to a solution first, but they don’t know what the issue is and what is driving the [aircraft] traffic. Why are they there? Is it legitimate for them to be there? Are the pilots following the suggested guidelines or not? Is it a weather issue? There are so many variables. The data establishes trends,” Grotell said. “With data we can prepare and investigate the reasons for the complaints. It works when you pull it together.”
PlaneNoise is a computerized system that features automated complaint collection using a toll-free noise complaint hotline, customized complaint webform and e-mail. Complaint collection features voice-to-text transcription and automated data parsing. Complainants are logged, mapped and identified. It features a secure, online complaint database, a complaint box dashboard, complaint verification and investigation, and tracks complaints from receipt to resolution. The system provides detailed GIS (Geographical Information System) maps and reports and identifies noise-sensitive areas and trends. Complaint Box Reports can be generated for any database input field and automatically distributed to any number of email recipients.
“The dashboard gives you a snapshot of where the complaints are coming from, who the most frequent complainants are and where they are located,” Grotell explained. “Then they are mapped with GIS so we can clearly see where and what the issues are. The system we designed to monitor helicopter noise over Long Island (N.Y.) shows a 13-month trend that is updated every two minutes and can be broken down by county. You can just log on and look. The system identifies who is making the complaints. The metric of noise complaints can be influenced by many factors. The real question is, how many distinct households are filing these complaints? Who is calling? The top-ten most frequent complainants file the most complaints. That is the most common scenario for most airports. That top ten could be 50 to 85 percent of total complaints. So when an elected official says an entire community is being affected [by aircraft noise] you can show that the data doesn’t support that assertion.”
Aside from the technology, the goal is to make area residents aware of the system and ensure they know how to use it, Grotell said. “The key was outreach. We met with elected officials in Long Island to let them know that this is an opportunity for them and their constituents to express their opinion about helicopter noise so we could identify noise-sensitive areas.”
Outreach can typically be the most expensive part of implementing PlaneNoise; the system itself is relatively economical, often costing less than $35,000 annually to implement in major markets, including an initial one-time set-up fee and marketing and outreach component.