Courtesy of Alaska Airlines
This diagram shows conventional flight paths in green and RNP (Required Navigation Performance) paths in red. The RNP routes are part of the newly proposed Greener Skies plan from the FAA and airlines that is intended to save miles, gas and money while reducing airplane noise. The changes have elicited concern from several Seattle neighborhoods, including Alki in West Seattle, that air traffic noise will actually get louder in their neighborhoods.

UPDATE: Residents frustrated, confused by FAA Greener Skies program

By Zachariah Bryan

Editors note: This story is from our sister publication the Ballard News-Tribune but the subject affects the greater Seattle area and impacts Ballard, West Seattle and Burien.

Update for Sept. 13 - comment deadline is Sept. 14

Comments must be made by midnight, Sept. 14. Comments may be made via online by emailing or by U.S. Mail to:

Federal Aviation Administration
Augustin Moses - AJV-W2
1601 Lind Ave, SW
Renton, WA 98057

Original post on Sept. 10
Though officials from the Federal Administration of Aviation and Alaska Air Group have been touting the “Greener Skies Over Seattle” program, saying it will transform the future of how airlines work, many people at an environmental assessment meeting at the Ballard Branch Library last Friday were frustrated and confused, not understanding what, exactly, it would do for them. Specifically, they had trouble figuring out whether it would reduce noise levels or increase them -- or whether it would do neither.

Greener Skies is a program launched in conjunction by the FAA, Alaska Airlines, the Port of Seattle and the Boeing Co. The most dramatic change that it will bring for airlines is how it will affect the process for the way airplanes land.

First off, instead of performing a “stepping down” maneuver -- in which planes must lower a little bit at a time and level off with each grade -- under the Greener Skies program, planes will be descending using an engine idling technique, resulting in the plane dropping down at a gradual and consistent rate. In an internal news memo, Doug Marek, head of terminal operations and procedures for the FAA, compared the new procedure to “sliding down a banister rather than stepping down stairs one at a time.” (You can see a graph of what this looks like by clicking on the picture above and scrolling through the slideshow.)
The second, perhaps more revolutionary change for the airlines, is the way planes will be navigated to the ground. Up until now, ground units navigating planes down have been essential to the process. The new program, called Required Navigation Performance (RNP), will be relying more on precise computer and satellite communication, which will be able to give a more pinpoint route to the airport.

This new way of communication would make flight paths more predictable, meaning that the airlines can be more careful in not wasting any airspace. This has two major side effects:

1) By being less scattered, planes will likely save significantly on amount of miles traveled. In fact, combined with the gas saved from the engine idling technique, airlines are expected to save annually 2.9 million gallons -- saving $7.3 million a year -- and saving 30,500 metric tons in carbon emissions, removing the equivelant of 5,600 cars off the road. In addition, airlines would save 4,800 hours, or $20.4 million.

With the new RNP navigation, some of this time would be saved by significantly lower mileage reroutes to the airport. You can see what that looks like in a graph within the slideshow (click on the picture above and scroll through). Notably, one reroute goes over the tip of West Seattle.

2) By having flight paths more concentrated, it would cause for a slight jump in noise pollution along the center of the flight path, and reduce noise pollution on the outer edges of the flight path.

It was this last point that became a point of contention at the environmental assessment meeting last Friday. Many people who attended the meeting -- several from Beacon Hill, which lies along the main flight path descent corridor -- were convinced that they have been hearing an increase in noise from airplanes, either with more frequency or coming in at lower altitudes.

A map showing where noise would be affected showed a narrow band of red -- meaning more noise -- going straight down through the Central District, Beacon Hill and down to SeaTac. The tip of West Seattle, along Alki Beach, also showed a noise increase. The Ballard area showed no increase or decrease.

The presenter, Robert Miller from Harris Miller Miller & Hanson, Inc, repeatedly said that the changes in noise level were insignificant. The greatest change that will be seen is .9 decibels, a level of sound difference that is almost imperceptible, Miller said.

“There are no places where there is significant impact," he said. "There are no places where there will be increase in noise.”

However, residents in attendance were skeptical.

"You should have been at our barbecue in Beacon Hill, then you would've heard the noise," an audience member said.

An official from the FAA said that the added noise was not necessarily from the flight trials, which took place from June 11 to early August. Rather, he said that people were more likely to hear airplane noise -- and thus complain about it when they see a new program like Greener Skies -- because it was the summer season and they are outside more. During fall, winter and spring, he said, people are more likely to be inside and hear less noise. Furthermore, he said, any noise residents may have heard within the past month would not be from the program or the trials, since it ended in August.

Still, residents expressed frustration because, whether there was any noise increase or not, they felt that their opinions and concerns would not be truly heard, anyway.

"You have to deal with the fact that there are a lot of people upset with the proposal," one audience member said during the presentation.

In addition, Beacon Hill residents Erik Stanford and fellow Beacon Hill resident Tina Ray believed that the meeting location did not allow for the residents most affected to express their opinion -- especially low income, elderly, disabled and minority people who could not drive or reasonably bus all the way up to Ballard or down to Federal way, where the only other meeting took place.

"Everyone has called begging them to move the meeting," Ray said. She said that there may finally be a possibility of an additional, less formal meeting being held in the area.

Both Stanford and Ray said they believed any comments or concerns would fall on deaf ears, and that no matter what they said or did they would not be heard.

"You're going to do what you're going to do despite what we say," Stanford said during the presentation.

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn briefly addressed the Greener Skies proposal at a town hall meeting in West Seattle on Aug. 28 at the request of Tony Fragada with the Alki Community Council, who voiced concern about rising noise levels with the new routes.
McGinn said he has heard concerns from neighborhoods across the city, and believes the Greener Skies proposal “could have winners and losers.” Noting the FAA makes the final decision on what happens in the sky, he said his office would work towards formulating a position (they are still working on it as of mid-September).
For South King County residents like Brett Fish of Normandy Park, the Greener Skies proposal is eerily similar to what they went through with the addition of a third runway at SeaTac Airport.
“The ‘purpose’ of Greener Skies is to provide a partial solution and band-aid to the inefficiencies of the existing air traffic control system at SeaTac Airport,” Fish said after reviewing the proposal. “It has all the familiar FAA earmarks of the ‘billion dollar boondoggle’ third runway ‘that will only be used for bad weather landings.’”

Residents living near the third runway have complained noise levels are much higher than advertised. Fish said the FAA’s use of a Day-Night Sound Level method is misleading when it comes to explaining the noise actual people will endure on a plane-by-plane basis (they take an average of decibel levels over a 24 hour period to find acceptable noise levels).

As Fish put it, “An event as loud as a gas weed whacker running in your living room for five minutes at 130+ dB can be made into a non-event averaged over a 24 hour period.”

Comments must be made by midnight, Sept. 14. Comments may be made via online by emailing or by U.S. Mail to:

Federal Aviation Administration
Augustin Moses - AJV-W2
1601 Lind Ave, SW
Renton, WA 98057

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