City examining changes to O’Hare jet noise complaint process

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The Chicago Department of Aviation is re-examining the questions it asks jet noise complainants, and how answers are collected, following an avalanche of beefs about new O’Hare jet noise, officials revealed Friday.

“It’s time to explore … what questions are asked and how do we get that data,’’ Deputy Aviation Commissioner Aaron Frame told the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission.

“This is something that needs attention.”

The disclosure emerged amid heated discussion at a Noise Commission meeting about O’Hare jet noise complaints that are approaching 3 million so far this year.

The deluge began after O’Hare dramatically changed its flight paths in October of 2013 but the numbers multiplied exponentially in February of 2015, after the Fair Allocation in Runways citizen coalition, or FAIR, launched a user-friendly complaint website.

FAIR’s allows residents to file complaints about multiple flights in one visit. The website collects the same information as the city’s official website and automatically forwards it to the city for tallying.

Noise Commission member John Barry, representing School District 84 ½ in River Grove, charged Friday that the process has fallen far afield of its original intent, which was to collect complaints that can be investigated. Instead, Barry said, due to online forms, beefs are so voluminous they have become “meaningless.”

“When we have 400,000 internet complaints [in a month], there’s nothing of value [city consultants] . . . can do with the data,’’ Barry said.

The number of jet noise complainants jumped sixfold within in a year after the big switch in O’Hare flight paths but before the FAIR website launched. Another ten-fold increase occurred by the first full month of the FAIR website’s existence. As of September, nearly 389,000 O’Hare complaints were registered by close to 63,500 people, data released Friday showed.

However, Barry insisted Friday that more people aren’t really complaining about O’Hare jet noise.

Instead, “we have more people who learned to use an app on their phone,” Barry said in an apparent reference to the FAIR website.

“They are not really complaining about anything other than that they don’t like airplanes,’’ Barry said.

Barry said at one point that “app” complainers “don’t type anything.” They just use “an app that you have on your phone that says, `I’m complaining to the Airport Noise Commission.’ “

The comment triggered immediate howls of “Wrong!” from the audience.

One citizen, Suzanne Carbon of Chicago’s 39th Ward, later told the Noise Commission that she enters her name, address, and the time of any offending flight onto the FAIR website, and selects from a menu of reasons for her complaint.

She bashed as “callous” the “asterisks” in Aviation Department reports that, in September for example, noted that “89,985 of 101,922 complaints in Bensenville came from 3 addresses.” That means 11,837 other Bensenville complaints didn’t come from three addresses and shouldn’t be dismissed, Carbon said.

“I have to tell you I get so angry when I see the asterisk,’’ Carbon said. “Have you ever considered the torture, the frustration, the suffering” that large-scale complainants “must be going through to file that?”

In addition, Carbon said, for every person that does complain, a thousand others don’t have the time to do so.

Carbon questioned why city aviation officials couldn’t try to correlate noise complaints with specific flights to see if particular airlines are flying their planes too low.

“I think the technology is out there,” Carbon said. “I guess the question is, `Do you have the stomach to do it?’ “

Noise Commission Chairwoman Arlene Juracek said citizens should be able to express their frustration but complaints of frustration were “masking any legitimate outliers that we should be working on.”

“We need to get back to management by exception,’’ Juracek said.

Darrin Thomas, the developer of FAIR’s noise complaint website, later questioned whether city efforts to address what Frame called the “methods” of collecting complaints would amount to an attempt to shut down FAIR’s website.

However, Thomas said, “I would shut down my website the same day the [Chicago Department of Aviation] starts actually reviewing these complaints and acting on them because right now, they are not doing anything.’’

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