Wide awake: New O’Hare flight paths spark complaints far beyond predicted areas

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O’Hare International Airport jet traffic kept hundreds of Chicago residents awake in March, even though they live outside an area predicted to shoulder the worst noise from new flight paths, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of citizen website data indicates.

More than 95 percent of Chicagoans who reported that O’Hare jets disturbed their sleep reside outside a “noise contour” used to determine eligibility for free sound insulation, an analysis of beefs to Chicagonoisecomplaint.com shows.

In fact, in Chicago, the March sleep complaints stretch as far east as the city’s 48th Ward along Lake Michigan.

That’s 13 miles from the center of O’Hare and more than 8 miles beyond the limits of the noise contour area that Federal Aviation Administration experts predicted would incur onerous jet noise once an $8 billion O’Hare Modernization Program is completed.

RELATED: Rep. Quigley: O’Hare flight paths pose ‘public health problem’ by disrupting sleep

Plotted on a map by the Sun-Times, the sleep-disrupting complaints fan out like a shotgun blast across Chicago.

Although many line up directly with runways, many others are located between two east-west runways. That means some residents are being kept awake by jet noise from two flight paths, said citizen website creator Darrin Thomas.

Fred Cnota of Norwood Park lives between two runways in the 41st Ward. As many as five days a week, he says, he can look out his bedroom window shortly after 6 a.m. and see flights headed toward two runways approaching in staggered positions.

“If you are between two runways you are in worse shape than the guy right under an approach,” Cnota said. “It’s non-stop noise.”

The sleep complaints reflect the dramatic 2013 traffic shift that switched flights from traveling over mostly suburbs north and south of O’Hare to mostly areas east and west of it. Some flights originating west of O’Hare are flying over Chicago twice so they can approach O’Hare from the east.

“It’s insane, the amount of traffic,’’ said Paula Getman, who lives in the city’s 39the Ward, where the biggest cluster of March sleep complaints occurred – 8,789.

“It’s slow torture.”

Getman reported her sleep was disturbed 265 times last month — often repeatedly just before midnight or between 5:30 and 7:30 a.m.; sometimes with a few blasts around 1, 2 or 3 in the morning.

Over one 24-hour period, five jets flew overhead between 11:25 p.m. and 1 a.m., followed by 13 planes between 2 a.m. and 3:04 a.m., then a final single salute at 5:52 a.m. Just after 11 p.m., the racket started again.

On a really bad night, Getman says she can sleep as little as 90 minutes. She’s lived in her North Park bungalow since 1997 but after the big 2013 flight path switch, “I was living in a completely different place in terms of sound scape — some place I never would have chosen.”

When the noise got unbearably aggravating, Getman said, “I wanted to call [Mayor] Rahm [Emanuel] and say, `Are you trying to turn this into Detroit? Do you want us all to leave?’ ”

Getman’s beefs and others show it is not the occasional plane that’s keeping many Chicagoans awake; it’s a repeated or intermittent drumbeat of overnight jet noise.

Sleep-disturbance complaints indicate the Federal Aviation Administration’s noise contour does not accurately reflect the impact of O’Hare’s new flight paths, said Jac Charlier, a leader of the Fair Allocation in Runways citizen coalition, or FAIR.

“The noise contour, like almost everything else that has happened with the O’Hare Modernization Program, has been wrong. Dead wrong,” Charlier said.

O’Hare jet noise “is much more disruptive” than predicted, Charlier said.

A deadly experience?

Complaints to the city’s jet noise hotline and website skyrocketed to new highs after O’Hare shifted from using mostly diagonal runways to mostly parallel east-west ones in October 2013.

Suddenly, 70 percent of air traffic entered O’Hare from the east over Chicago and departed to the west. The new blitz over the city even emerged as a campaign issue during Chicago’s April mayoral runoff elections.

Jet noise beefs to the city’s website soared even higher last week, when the city released the first batch of figures reflecting beefs forwarded from the citizen website.

On Friday, noise complaints to chicagonoisecomplaint.com since Feb. 1 surpassed the 1 million mark, with nearly 16 percent listed as impacting sleep, said Thomas, a FAIR member.

Sleep experts say repeated sleep disruptions can have serious health repercussions, including increasing the chances of cardiovascular problems, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, obesity and even death.

They also say more research is needed specifically on the health impacts of jet noise.

But in general, “people who sleep five hours a night have an increased risk of death — substantially,’’ said Dr. Charles Czeisler, a professor of sleep medicine at Harvard University and chief of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

A Sun-Times analysis showed Chicagonoisecomplaint.com logged more than 61,000 O’Hare sleep complaints during March — an amount Czeisler called “terrible.”

“You have to believe many more people don’t even know there’s a website they can complain to,” said Czeisler, a former Chicagoan.

More than 8,300 sleep complaints listed no specific address so it was not clear how many individuals had logged them.

However, another nearly 52,500 March sleep complaints featured addresses. They were filed by 532 people, including 377 Chicagoans who registered 28,843 reports of sleep disruptions.

About three-quarters of March sleep beefs span the Fly Quiet hours of 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., when pilots are urged to voluntarily fly over less populated areas to minimize disturbance to residents, the Sun-Times analysis indicated. However, of the non-Fly-Quiet beefs, more than half occurred in the last hour before Fly Quiet begins—from 9 p.m. to 9:59 p.m.

Of Chicago complainants who listed addresses, 97 percent lived outside noise contour areas predicted to be hit with jet noise loud enough to qualify for free sound insulation by the time the O’Hare runway overhaul is completed. Across the city and suburbs, 93 percent of sleep complainants who gave addresses live outside the contour.

Heading to the basement

Under the overhaul plan, two more runways, and the extension of a third, are due by 2020, although funding for much of that work is uncertain. The noise contour is not due to be revised until 2025, although the FAA is re-evaluating the decibel level used to draw such contours nationwide.


In advance of each runway opening, the city has been insulating homes inside the contour that the FAA predicted would be impacted by the upcoming runway’s use. A mix of federal funds and O’Hare passenger facility charges bankrolls the work.

But with nearly all complaints occurring outside the areas eligible for free insulation, residents are finding their own ways of dealing with overnight jet noise.

Some Chicagoans are turning to deep breathing exercises, or running the dryer or TV at night to drown out the racket. Even so, some told the Sun-Times, their sleep has been disturbed.

Dr. Phyllis Zee, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, recommends heavy curtains on windows, noise-cancelling machines and earplugs.

However, Valerie Nutial in the 40th Ward says she avoids noise-blocking contraptions because she wants to be able to hear any signs of trouble from her mother, who lives below her in their two-flat.

Over one six-day stretch in March, Nutial woke up five mornings to jet noise every five minutes or less, starting as early 4:17 a.m., her noise beefs indicate.

“It sounds like they are flying on top of my house and it doesn’t stop,’’ Nutial said. “It’s beyond obscene.”

Zee also suggests sleeping as far below the roof as possible at bedtime.

In the 40th Ward, Michael Kraetsch is planning just that.

Kraetsch has an air mattress inflated in his basement, where he will sleep during the next bad onslaught. That’s usually over the holidays, when Kraetsch said noisy overnight cargo flights seem relentless for days on end.

Kraetsch reported 334 sleep disruptions in March using a citizen website feature that allows bulk reports of jet noise every few minutes over one or two hours. The reports are automatically forwarded to the city’s website.

When he moved from Wisconsin to Chicago in 2014, Kraetsch said, “I never in my wildest dreams imagined that we would be having planes in the middle of the night. I didn’t look at the house at 1 o’clock in the morning [before buying it].”

Zee urged residents to record decibel levels in their homes to get a handle on the situation.

“You need data,” Zee said. “It’s not a good thing to have noise disrupt your sleep day after day. But I also say more research needs to be done to assess what is the level in some of these individual homes.”

<small><strong>Michael Kraetsch holds an iPad with a decibel meter application he uses to measure noise from planes flying overhead on April 28, 2015. | James Foster/For Sun-Times Media</strong></small>

Michael Kraetsch holds an iPad with a decibel meter application he uses to measure noise from planes flying overhead on April 28, 2015. | James Foster/For Sun-Times Media

Kraetsch used an app to determine the decibel level in his bedroom during at least three flights on one recent night between 11:15 p.m. and midnight. He said it registered between 65 and 75 decibels – well above the 55-decibel level officially considered onerous at night outside a home.

Two spokespeople for the Chicago Department of Aviation declined repeated requests for an interview about overnight O’Hare jet noise, and would not respond to emailed questions about what the department publicly reports on the matter.

City officials previously have said the runway switch was needed to increase capacity and reduce delays caused by diagonal runways that intersect.

Saving the diagonals

The sleep complaints are another reason lawmakers should allow O’Hare to keep two diagonal runways open instead of decommissioning them before new runways are added, FAIR’s Charlier said. Legislation to do so passed the Illinois Senate last week and is making its way through the Illinois House.

One diagonal runway in particular, 14R, leads to a long stretch of mostly non-residential land, stretching all the way to Schaumburg, and is most compatible with O’Hare’s voluntary “Fly Quiet” program, FAIR leaders contend.

FAIR has been giving lawmakers Chicago Department of Aviation maps that show mostly non-residential, Fly Quiet-compatible areas in purple. In them, the path extending northwest from 14R reflects a long swath of purple.

It’s among only four “preferred” Fly Quiet arrival runways. Yet 14R was used for only 1 percent of arrivals during Fly Quiet hours in the fourth quarter of 2014, city data shows.

Charlier contends overnight O’Hare traffic is lopsided in favor of one arrival and one departure runway and should be spread out more equitably on different nights on different runways, including diagonal ones due for closure like 14R.

“Don’t build lots of runways and then only use one for night arrivals. It doesn’t make any sense,’’ Charlier said. “It’s a waste of taxpayer money.”

Thomas urged the city to publicly report sleep beefs and to plot all noise complaints on a map as he does in real time on his website for the 25 zip codes with the most jet noise beefs.

“If I can do it with off-the-shelf technology, why can’t they?” Thomas asked. “I think they aren’t doing it because it’s embarrassing.”

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