Noise monitors mistake jackhammers for jets, says defiant City Hall

SHARE Noise monitors mistake jackhammers for jets, says defiant City Hall
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Complaints about noise from O’Hare International Airport rose sharply in April. | File Photo

Chicago aviation officials said Friday they omitted data about jet noise – a controversial topic in the Chicago area — from a new plane-tracking website out of concern that noise monitor levels might include jackhammers and trains.

But jet noise activists scoffed at that argument, noting that there are scores of jackhammers and trains in New York, where residents can track airplane decibel levels online.

In addition, “If you’re going to put a noise monitor next to a jackhammer, you’re an idiot,’’ said Len Schaier, president of the New York-based QuietSkies.net.

“Experts know how to do this” so monitors are not near jackhammers or trains, Schaier said.

Chicago’s WebTrak site displays the near-real-time movement of planes into and out of O’Hare International and Midway Airports. Viewers can click on a plane icon to see its altitude, origin and destination, airline and jet type. They can also hit “replay” to view traffic over the last 90 days.

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However, unlike officials behind similar systems in New York, New Jersey and Los Angeles, Chicago officials opted to omit a feature from WebTrak that allows visitors to click on the icon of a stationary noise monitor to seethedecibel level change as planes near it and then fly away from it.

“We don’t plan to do that because you may see a number pop up on a screen [that] we have to check, through quality control,’’ the Chicago Department of Aviation’s Aaron Frame told members of the O’Hare Noise Monitoring Commission Friday.

“Or you may see some glitch or you may have trouble [interpreting] it,’’ Frame said.

“Mics on monitors are picking up all the noise in a three-mile radius, so what you may be seeing on the screen might be a Metra train . . . or a jackhammer, so we do not plan to enable that feature.”

A senior official for Bruel & Kjaer, which provides Chicago’s new WebTrak flight-tracking site, said Friday that experts are well-versed on where to place monitors so that they predominately pick up jet noise.

He added that, of more than two dozen North American airport systems that use WebTrak, only a handful don’t have the noise-reading feature.

Of the cities that don’t let residents track noise levels online, only Chicago has noise monitors in place, the official said. He was not sure about the monitors’ compatibility with WebTrak, but Chicago has been in the process of getting eight new noise monitors for months.

“There’s no technological reason why a system like [Los Angeles airport’s] or New York-New Jersey’s Port Authority could not be set up at O’Hare,’’ said the official, who asked for anonymity because he did not deal with the Chicago contract.

“Everything takes money and people have to decide what they want to pay for.”

Any noise from a jackhammer three miles away should be faint, the official said. If a monitor is picking up noise when a plane is not over it, the viewer can deduce that the noise is not from the plane.

Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride, though, said that the city considers reports from its own noise monitors “very robust” and is instead paying a subscription fee of $24,650 per year for WebTrak’s other features.The city’s reporting system captures all sorts of noise, but then “correlates the noise events that coincide with aircraft flyovers in order to determine which noise events are aircraft noise events,” Pride wrote in an email.But Jac Charlier of the Fair Allocation in Runways (FAIR) coalition called it “ridiculous” that the city was worried about jackhammer or train noise commingling with jet noise. The site of North Park’s noise monitor was carefully selected specifically so that it would not pick up train noise, Charlier said.

FAIR has been railing against increased jet noise since a dramatic shift in flight paths at O’Hare was instituted in October 2013. Chicagoans and others east of the airport, as well as suburbanites west of it, have been bombarded with new jet noise over the last year and a half.

Chicago’s “jackhammer” argument just “continues the pattern” of “duke left, dodge right” when it comes to Chicago jet noise, Charlier said.

“Clearly other cities have trains and jackhammers and they don’t run into the same problem,’’ Charlier said. “Everything [Chicago officials] say is evasive.”

The dispute came as city officials on Friday revealed that in one month alone, the number of people who complained about O’Hare jet noise jumped by 11,000.

Complainants jumped from 31,158 in March to 42,162 in April – an increase of 35 percent, according to Chicago Department of Aviation statistics shared with the Noise Commission.

The boost could reflect increasing numbers of people confronted with jet noise as they open their windows to warmer spring temperatures.

In addition, since Feb. 1, the citizen-created www.chicagonoisecomplaint.com has been forwarding beefs it collects to the city. The website was created by Darrin Thomas, a member of the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, and eases the process for registering a beef and reporting multiple planes over an hour or more period.

O’Hare jet noise beefs have risen since the big switch in flight paths.

The number of complaints to the city increased nearly 16 percent between March and April, reaching 408,468, Friday’s data showed.

The biggest chunk of them – 126,094 – occurred in Chicago, April data showed. More than 18,000 of those came from five Chicago addresses, city officials noted in their report.

Since Feb. 1, complaints to www.chicagonoisecomplaint have topped 1.59 million, the website indicated Friday morning.

However, Thomas said the city site has been down multiple days over that time and apparently did not absorb all the complaints he forwarded.

“Their site goes down for days every month, denying citizens the right to comment,’’ Thomas said.

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The WebTrak site shows arriving planes in red and departing planes in green, and tracks their movements, almost in real time. | Screenshot

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