A recent increase in aircraft noise over Peaks Island has residents asking officials to reduce plane traffic over their community, including from an arrival flight path recently introduced in part to limit noise disruption in South Portland.
“We have more planes coming over Peaks Island now than we have at any time in our history,” said Basil Klosteridis, whose family has owned a seasonal home on the north side of Peaks for a century and moved there full-time six years ago. “You are talking about an island community. This has never been our way of life – it has been a very quiet, serene community. It is almost like throwing jets over a national park.”
But Portland International Jetport officials suspect islanders’ complaints are a reaction to an increase in jet traffic following a travel lull during the coronavirus pandemic. Some complaints can be traced to old arrival and departure routes, and not the new approach over the north tip of Peaks Island that Southwest Airlines was approved to use last year.
Still, the jetport and its Noise Advisory Committee want to mitigate noise by keeping both departing and arriving planes over water as much as possible, Airport Director Paul Bradbury said.
Making those changes, however, could take years.
“I fully understand the frustration on Peaks,” Bradbury said. “One thing we have that other communities don’t have is the ocean, and the idea is to get these flight tracks over it. We are trying to make it better for everyone. There is no silver bullet.”
About half the flights into and out of the jetport are over less populated areas west of the airport. But depending on weather, wind and conditions, pilots land from the east, either in a straight line over South Portland, or, in daylight and favorable conditions, south of Peaks Island and down the Fore River, a route called the harbor visual approach.
Last year, Southwest Airlines received approval to use a new flight path, called the Special RNAV Visual approach, which brings aircraft in on the north side of Peaks Island and then over Portland Harbor and the Fore River. That approach can be used at night, but not in poor weather. So far, only Southwest and Delta Air Lines are approved to use it.
The route came about after some South Portland residents lobbied to reduce aircraft noise over their homes, but it has been planned for years.
The result, Klosteridis said, is that aircraft traffic and noise have been transferred from a longstanding approach path over South Portland to island neighborhoods unused to the disruption.
“It was an organized effort to shift the noise from them to us,” Klosteridis said. “We didn’t buy real estate here in a flight path – it was put upon us, and it wasn’t done with a tremendous amount of notification or due diligence.”
Noise complaints from Peaks Island have spiked in the past year. In 2018, South Portland accounted for three-quarters of the 923 complaints from the city, Portland, Scarborough and Great Diamond Island.
In 2020, South Portland’s share dropped to 38 percent of the 1,081 complaints to the jetport, while Peaks Island contributed 56 percent. The island also had 32 callers, the second-largest share behind the 48 people who complained from South Portland.
From January to April of this year, Peaks Island again made up more than half of the 160 complaints the jetport received.
“There is a lot of concern among islanders, especially in the summer now that everyone is here with the windows open,” said Randy Schaeffer, chairman of the Peaks Island Council. About 900 people live on the island year-round, but the population more than doubles during the summer.
New GPS waypoints are supposed to be installed off the southern part of Peaks this year, so airplanes will be less likely to fly over the island when they approach over the harbor, Schaeffer said. Island advocates also want the Southwest Airlines approach to be pushed north and east of the island and over Hussey Sound.
“The first thing we are going to do after the waypoints are installed is to ask that the noise level be assessed,” Schaffer said. “From our perspective, how the noise got here is irrelevant – now we need to figure out what to do about it.”
Bradbury, the jetport executive, thinks the cause of noise is more complicated than the creation of a new route. Four flights a day – out of up to 50 – use the new approach some islanders blame for the noise, he said. An analysis of complaints from the island indicated that flights departing over the north tip sparked more complaints than when planes were landing, Bradbury said.
The Special RNAV Visual approach designed by Southwest was outlined in the jetport’s noise compatibility program approved by the Federal Aviation Administration 15 years ago, he said.
“It has just taken years to get the approaches built due to limits to the technology,” Bradbury said. “All of this predated the discussion from South Portland and that is why the FAA was willing to move on it.”
Overall, Peaks Island still has a smaller share of flights overhead than other parts of Greater Portland. In May, about 20 percent of flights arriving from the east crossed part of the island, compared with 39 percent that crossed South Portland, Bradbury said. In the same month, about 26 percent of easterly departures went over part of Peaks and 32 percent were flying out over Portland’s West End, he added.
Airplane noise is more pronounced and disruptive on a quiet island, Bradbury noted. Generally, Americans are more annoyed by airplane noise at lower levels now than they were 30 years ago, according to a recent FAA environmental study.
The nationwide lull in aircraft travel during the height of the pandemic and substantial increase in travel this summer could help explain a rise in complaints, Bradbury said.
“I respect and appreciate you are going from a quiet summer to a noisy summer and from a quiet period to a noisy period,” he said. “It is very easy to say, ‘It’s that darn RNAV that is causing this problem.’”
For Vicki Flanagan, a full-time Peaks Island resident since 2010, the current noise levels are frustrating, but she’s concerned for the future. As navigation technology improves, Flanagan worries the route Southwest uses could become the preference for every flight, regardless of its impact on the island.
“That’s the problem: It starts out as a few planes but it could technically be 80 planes a day,” she said. “They are huge aircraft flying out of their way to fly over us – there is no redeeming value at all.”