For a moment, 29,000 pounds of thrust from a Southwest 737 flying overhead was alive in my chest.
Standing on the lot of a Glen Burnie car dealership, I had to tell the salesman to pause his pitch until the jetliner, its noise and the deep, body rumble I was feeling, had passed.
This is what it’s like some days for roughly 140,000 people in Howard and Anne Arundel counties living directly under the flight paths of Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport. Airplane noise can be an engine scream high in the sky or the distant roar of a waterfall down the street.
And it can be a lungful of vibrating air.
Now, for the first time, advocates for addressing that noise will get seats on the Maryland Aviation Commission, a body that helps govern BWI. A law taking effect Oct. 1 adds four members to the nine-member body, two each from Howard and Anne Arundel counties.
“It’s just something that should be considered, along with other very important variables, such as access, jobs, tax base, revenue,” said Jesse Chancellor, whose name has been submitted to Gov. Wes Moore for appointment to the commission. “All those things are equally important, but we just need to have them all on the table.”
It’s not just noise that will have a more prominent place in discussions about airport operations and expansion. The recently passed law is part of an effort to rebalance the sometimes adversarial relationship between big airports and their surrounding communities.
“Really, aviation has always been viewed by those who are working in it as something that has to be protected from the general public because, frankly, no one has ever been OK with industrial aviation noise,” said Mary Reese, another nominee.
Ask someone at the Maryland Aviation Administration about noise and the relationship with the community and you’re likely to hear that BWI is a transportation resource and economic engine, producing and supporting 106,000 jobs and having a total economic impact of $9.3 billion.
Then they’ll talk about the many things the airport has done on this subject.
“We also take the responsibility of being a good neighbor very seriously,” BWI spokesperson Jonathan Dean wrote in an email. “BWI Marshall Airport has a longstanding, comprehensive noise program to help support our local communities.”
All that is true. It’s been part of a voluntary federal noise program for 40 years, providing sound insulation for more than 700 local homes and schools. It is about to spend another $35 million to expand the program. It also operates one of the most transparent websites around for tracking air traffic, noise measured in decibels and filing complaints.
I can hear these planes jetting toward the runways above my home in Annapolis, where they regularly follow the South River northeast. Sometimes, weather conditions force them down low and the sound becomes more than a curiosity.
If you live closer to BWI, though, this is a part of daily life. No one buys a home close to the airport and looks up one day and says, “Wow, there’s an airport down the street.”
Nothing the commission can do will make that noise go away. BWI touts itself as the region’s busiest airport, with more than 27 million passengers a year.
“We have an international airport in the northern part of our county,” Anne Arundel Councilwoman Alison Pickard said. “Unless they start taking off like a helicopter that’s ... what airports do.”
Yet there is a growing acknowledgment of the impact that airport noise has on the health of surrounding communities, such as Glen Burnie and Columbia.
A state-funded study released last year created a model to quantify how noise affects cardiovascular disease, birth weight, anxiety and mortality. The results showed an $800 million increase in medical costs over 30 years.
The lead author of the study would join the commission overseeing the source of that noise if he is appointed by the governor.
“I want to bring thinking about both the health and economic aspects of aircraft,” said Dr. Zafar Zafari, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. “And I think that’s how I can be valuable to this, just by quantifying the economic burden of aircraft noise and the detrimental health effects of that. What are the trade-offs?”
The network of noise monitors that BWI operates shows just how much louder a passing airplane can make your surroundings, jumping up by 20 to 30 decibels. European standards suggest that anything above 45 decibels means a greater risk of high blood pressure, while 55 decibels and up can result in an increased risk of heart attack. The FAA sets 65 decibels as too loud to live near.
At the overlook next to BWI in Severn Wednesday, incoming jets raised the noise to 70 decibels, according to a portable meter. A BWI noise monitor nearby was showing 80 on Thursday.
State Sen. Pamela Beidle, of Anne Arundel, collaborated with Democratic state Sen. Clarence Lam, of Howard County, on adding community members to the aviation commission. The passage of the bill followed a failed effort three years ago that would have created a new commission with a greater presence from the community.
The commission oversees the airport with the Maryland Department of Transportation, usually in the form of the secretary. It has a say in everything from construction and upgrades to contracts and agreements with the airlines. Southwest Airlines remains the dominant carrier at BWI.
The commission, however, seldom appears to focus on noise. A check of its agenda online shows no mention of the subject for months.
The intent of the new law is to provide more balance.
“They’re both the regulator and the promoter of the airport,” said Lam, whose district also includes a portion of Anne Arundel. “Those two hats are sometimes in conflict.”
Complaints spiked after the 2015 adoption of narrow flight paths for BWI, Reagan National Airport and Washington Dulles by the FAA, part of a modernization of the national air traffic control system. Prevailing weather and winds put the bulk of those 200 flights a day coming in over Glen Burnie and Severn and going out over Columbia.
“That created superhighways for aircraft,” Lam said.
It also led the MAA to create the DC Metroplex BWI Community Roundtable, a group that works with the FAA on the impact of the region’s three major airports on residents. Both Reese, a Naval Academy graduate who worked on conflicts between air bases and surrounding communities while in the Navy, and Chancellor, a retired banker, serve on the group.
It was one of the first of its kind in the nation, and the first to contribute to the technical process of changing the rules governing airspace over airports. This year, it helped convince the FAA to test dispersing some BWI flights to other paths and raising approach altitudes. Any changes wouldn’t happen until 2025.
Adding members to the Maryland Aviation Commission is the next step, not only bringing concerns about noise and air pollution to the panel, but also improving ties with local governments affected by decisions at the state-owned airport.
“Noise pollution problems that plague the community coming from the airport are caused by the FAA,” Chancellor said. “But it’s also caused by decisions taken by the airport on the ground about what kind of infrastructure to put in and what kind of expansion to do and how to do it.
“I’m working to try to mitigate it with the FAA. But we won’t really be able to solve, or at least balance the problem, if we don’t also address it at the commission and airport.”
This column has been updated to correctly attribute a comment about BWI to County Councilwoman Allison Pickard.