Congress Acts to Control Noise Pollution

Congress amended the Federal Aviation Act of 1958, authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration to set noise and sonic-boom standards for commercial aircraft.

Summary of Event

The tremendous growth of commercial jet aircraft traffic during the 1960’s led to citizen complaints and lawsuits related to the noise pollution created by aircraft during takeoff and landing. The problem was particularly acute over Long Island, New York, which was the confluence of flight paths for both Kennedy International Airport and LaGuardia Airport, and over Washington, D.C., as a result of the proximity of National Airport to the center of the city. Noise
Aircraft Noise Abatement Act (1968)
Federal Aviation Act (1958)
[kw]Congress Acts to Control Noise Pollution (July 21, 1968)
[kw]Noise Pollution, Congress Acts to Control (July 21, 1968)
[kw]Pollution, Congress Acts to Control Noise (July 21, 1968)
Aircraft Noise Abatement Act (1968)
Federal Aviation Act (1958)
[g]North America;July 21, 1968: Congress Acts to Control Noise Pollution[09840]
[g]United States;July 21, 1968: Congress Acts to Control Noise Pollution[09840]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 21, 1968: Congress Acts to Control Noise Pollution[09840]
[c]Environmental issues;July 21, 1968: Congress Acts to Control Noise Pollution[09840]
[c]Space and aviation;July 21, 1968: Congress Acts to Control Noise Pollution[09840]
Staggers, Harley O.
Magnuson, Warren G.
Boyd, Alan S.

The introduction of commuter jets at National Airport in April, 1966, made the noise problem considerably worse. Opponents had suggested using the new Dulles International Airport, located twenty-six miles west of the city in Virginia, for short-haul flights, and more than three dozen citizens’ groups opposed allowing commuter jets to operate from National Airport. Nevertheless, approval for commuter jets was granted, perhaps because the principal users of this new service were people who preferred the convenience of arriving and departing a mere fifteen minutes from downtown Washington, D.C. As a result, during 1966, the modern, well-planned Dulles Airport served only 863,000 passengers, while pre-World War II National Airport accommodated 6,500,000 passengers.

By 1967, however, the complaints to congressional representatives became so severe that the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce’s House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce Subcommittee on Transportation and Aeronautics House Subcommittee on Transportation and Aeronautics began hearings with the aim of authorizing the transportation secretary to set aircraft noise regulations. Transportation Secretary Alan S. Boyd, chief administrative witness at these hearings, told the committee members that of all the subjects within the responsibility of the Transportation Department Department of Transportation, U.S. , noise abatement had become one of the most pressing. The secretary established study panels to investigate various aspects of aircraft noise such as aircraft noise research, aircraft operations, sonic-boom research, airport and land use, and human response to noise.

Although there are special noise problems associated with jet aircraft takeoff and landing, the even more problematic noise known as sonic boom Aircraft;supersonic flight occurs whenever an airplane flies at a speed greater than the speed of sound (approximately 760 miles per hour at low altitudes). A sonic boom is a pressure transient of short duration (about 0.25 seconds), analogous to the bow wave of a boat moving rapidly through the water. When the pressure waves from a supersonic aircraft are received on the ground, a double sonic boom is produced. The shock wave from the bow of the plane produces a large positive pressure increase, followed by a large negative pressure from the trailing edge. Since the pressure shock waves are produced during the entire time an airplane is in supersonic transit, not just at the moment it exceeds the speed of sound, the problem is severe over the entire flight path. Studies of sonic booms indicate that they can be quite destructive in occupied areas. They break windows, cause structural damage, and are extremely annoying to people.

During the late 1960’s, the issue of sonic booms became prominent. Supersonic flight by military planes had been commonplace for more than a decade, but commercial airplanes that would routinely travel at speeds exceeding the speed of sound began to be developed. Three versions of the supersonic transport plane (SST) had been designed. Although none of these had yet been operational, Anglo-French and Soviet versions existed as prototypes by 1968. The Anglo-French version is known as the Concorde and the Soviet version is known as the Tupolev. A U.S. version of the SST designed by the Boeing Company was the most ambitious of these projects, having the largest capacity, the highest cruising speed (1,800 miles per hour), and the greatest estimated cost. Although the SST would be in competition with nonsupersonic jumbo jets such as the Boeing 747 then being developed and tested, the only clear advantage to the SST would be its faster speed. Jumbo jets, which would be capable of carrying more passengers a greater distance for less money than the SST, were being financed entirely by the aviation industry, while the development of the American SST would require a massive government subsidy. In anticipation of the issues and problems that might occur when commercial supersonic transportation become a reality, the subject of nonmilitary sonic booms was addressed in the Aircraft Noise Abatement Act.

On May 23, 1968, the House Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, chaired by Harley O. Staggers, introduced an administration-backed bill, H.R. 3400, to provide for nonmilitary aircraft noise abatement. It gave the Federal Aviation Administration Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) the power to set aircraft noise and sonic-boom standards as part of its authority to certify aircraft for use. In its supporting report, the committee said the bill was intended to reduce all undesirable aircraft noise to the lowest possible level of disturbance consonant with the public interest and to afford the public present and future relief and protection from all unnecessary aircraft noise, including sonic booms.

On July 10, the House unanimously passed H.R. 3400 and sent it to the Senate. In reporting on this action, Congressman Staggers stated that this was a simple but important amendment to the Federal Aviation Act because, although the FAA had a program to reduce aircraft noise, it had no specific authority to set standards, rules, or regulations. H.R. 3400 provided this authority by charging the FAA with the responsibility of actively carrying forward a noise-reduction effort.

On July 1, the Senate Committee on Commerce Senate Committee on Commerce , chaired by Senator Warren G. Magnuson, reported H.R. 3400 without amendments. The committee believed that aircraft noise had become such a serious problem in so many locales that the problem must be alleviated. It reported that the first order of business was to stop the escalation of aircraft noise by imposing noise reduction standards. These standards required the full application of noise reduction technology, since a completely quiet airplane was not likely in the foreseeable future.

After receiving the final version of the bill from the House, the Senate passed H.R. 3400 and sent it to President Lyndon B. Johnson for his signature. The action came after rejection of an amendment that proposed that the FAA embark on a two-year scientific investigation of sonic booms and their effects. It further banned all nonmilitary flights at supersonic speeds within U.S. territory except those conducted as part of the study. This ban would remain effective until Congress could review the results and determine whether the prohibition against supersonic flights should be continued.

The Aircraft Noise Abatement Act became an amendment to the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. The provisions of this amendment require the administrator of the FAA, after consultation with the secretary of transportation, to prescribe standards for the measurement of aircraft noise and sonic boom, and to prescribe rules and regulations to control and abate these noise levels. The act also directed the FAA administrator, in prescribing the standards and regulations, to consider all relevant available data, including the results of research, development, and testing, and to consult with the appropriate federal and state agencies. Finally, the administrator was charged with considering whether proposed regulations were consistent with the highest degree of air safety as well as economically feasible and technically practical.

Although the Aircraft Noise Abatement Act had been an attempt to reduce aircraft noise by government regulation, and technological advances were required to meet mandated requirements, the restrictions were rapidly offset by the increase in the number of flights at almost all airports. Thus, aircraft noise continued to be a major environmental problem.


Prior to the passage of the Aircraft Noise Abatement Act, several congressional representatives, despairing of ever persuading the FAA to impose a ban on SST supersonic flight over land, introduced bills to ban such flights. In 1968, Senator Clifford P. Case Case, Clifford introduced a bill that would have banned SST supersonic flight over any U.S. territory, but the bill was not passed. That same year, Congressmen T. R. Kuperfman Kuperfman, T. R. and R. L. Ottinger Ottinger, R. L. , along with ten colleagues, introduced a resolution termed the “National Conservation Bill of Rights” that would have banned harassing booms. In February, 1969, Senator Case unsuccessfully reintroduced his antiboom bill, and in September of the same year, a nearly equivalent bill was voted down by the House. Although the Aircraft Noise Abatement Act addressed the issue of sonic booms by authorizing the FAA to set limits on SST booms, the FAA declined to set such limits. It is useful to remember that the FAA had an interest in seeing the SST developed, and was therefore reluctant to establish limits on sonic-boom noise, or even other aircraft noise. Senator Case likened this situation to “setting the fox to guard the chickens.”

Because of the apparent reluctance of the FAA to set noise control standards, an attempt was made by Congressman John W. Wydler Wydler, John W. to add an amendment to the Noise Control Act of 1972 during debate of this act on the House floor. Charging that the FAA had not used its authority to set noise limits during the four-year interim since the Aircraft Noise Reduction Act became law, his amendment would have placed primary regulatory power with the Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Congressman Staggers felt that the lack of aviation expertise in the EPA would ultimately endanger public safety. Consequently, this amendment was defeated by voice vote. Nevertheless, the final version of the Noise Control Act required the FAA, after consulting with the EPA, to set standards for the measurement, control, and abatement of aircraft noise and sonic booms. The EPA was directed to submit proposed control regulations to the FAA. The FAA, in turn, was required to begin proposed rule-making procedures within thirty days, and to hold hearings within sixty days. The FAA was further required to either approve, modify, or reject the EPA’s proposed rules. If any EPA rules were rejected, however, the FAA was obligated to publicly explain the reasons in detail.

During the same House debate, an amendment to prohibit sonic booms over U.S. territory by commercial jets was once again introduced and defeated. This time, Congress was assured that work was in progress and that an FAA regulation of sonic booms would be issued soon. Officials believed that sonic-boom prohibition should be done by FAA regulation rather than by act of Congress, because regulations are more flexible than laws.

The long-term result of the Aircraft Noise Abatement Act and the additional pressure put on the FAA by the section of the Noise Abatement Act that dealt with aircraft noise was that the U.S. development of a civilian SST was canceled. The Russian and the Anglo-French versions had been operational from the 1970’s to 2005, when the last supersonic jet was used in commercial service. The cancellation in the United States resulted from an increased public awareness of the problems, combined with the untenable cost of the U.S. development program. The resulting FAA regulations, titled Federal Aviation Regulation 36 (FAR-36), forbade sonic booms over U.S. territory by civilian aircraft. Military craft are allowed to continue a limited number of supersonic operations over land areas.

FAR-36 also imposes rather strict noise limits, during takeoff and during landings, on aircraft certified for flight after 1969. Existing jet engines were consequently retrofitted to meet the FAR-36 standard, although airlines were initially reluctant to invest large sums of money on a retrofitting program. Nevertheless, a considerable proportion of the existing fleet was thus quieted. These craft were given promotional names such as “whisperjet” or “whisperliner” to alert the public to the fact that aircraft noise was being reduced. Additional noise reduction was effected by moving flight patterns away from residential areas where possible, adding sound barriers around airport ramps, and using zoning laws to create buffer regions near new airports.

Although the control of aircraft noise other than sonic booms remains one of the most controversial urban environmental issues, the Aircraft Noise Abatement Act was an important first step in recognizing and dealing with this escalating problem. Airlines now transport approximately 80 percent of all U.S. intercity common carrier passenger traffic. Despite efforts to develop high-speed ground transportation, the number of aircraft takeoffs and landings near major cities continues to grow. Furthermore, as a result of soaring land prices, residential areas are encroaching into the noise buffer zones surrounding airports.

In general, machines that produce large amounts of mechanical power will also produce a proportionately large amount of noise. Jet engines are typical proof of this maxim, but steps can be taken to ameliorate the problem. The Aircraft Noise Abatement Act was an important first legislative step toward achieving quieter jet engines. As society becomes less willing to tolerate noise, the future promises to bring about even more substantial reductions in aircraft noise. Noise
Aircraft Noise Abatement Act (1968)
Federal Aviation Act (1958)

Further Reading

  • Federal Interagency Committee on Aviation Noise. A collective of federal agencies, formed in 1993, tasked with researching and solving the problem of noise associated with aviation.
  • Goldsteen, Joel B. The ABCs of Environmental Regulation. 2d ed. Rockville, Md.: ABS Consulting/Government Institutes, 2003. Provides practical and easy-to-understand explanations of the federal government’s environmental regulations, including the Airport Noise Abatement Act of 1968 and the Noise Control Act of 1972.
  • Noise Pollution Clearinghouse. http://www.nonoise .org./ A valuable resource on all types of noise pollution, including aircraft and airport noise. Includes many links.
  • Shurcliff, W. A. SST and Sonic Boom Handbook. New York: Ballantine, 1970. A source book that lucidly demonstrates that the SST is an unnecessary insult to the environment and explains why and how its development should be stopped. This book played a key role in the ultimate congressional defeat of the SST program in the United States.
  • Strong, W. J., and G. R. Plitnik. Music, Speech, and Audio. Provo, Utah: Soundprint, 1992. A comprehensive treatment for general readers that covers many aspects of sound, including sections on aircraft noise, sonic booms, and the controlling of environmental noise.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Report on Aircraft-Airport Noise. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1973. The EPA status report on U.S. aircraft-airport noise, as required by the Noise Control Act of 1972. Includes the adequacy of FAA noise control, noise emission standards, and measures available for noise control.
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Office of Noise Abatement and Control. Manufacturing and Transportation Noise. Vol. 2 in Public Hearings on Noise Abatement and Control. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1972. Hearings on noise used to compile relevant background information for the Noise Control Act of 1972. Includes a section on airport and aircraft noise.
  • U.S. Federal Council for Science and Technology. Committee on Environmental Quality. Noise: Sound Without Value. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1968. The chapter on aircraft noise reviews the dimensions of the problem and presents the responsibilities of federal agencies concerning aircraft noise abatement. Concludes with ten detailed recommendations to alleviate the problem.
  • U.S. General Accounting Office. Aviation and the Environment: Transition to Quieter Aircraft Occurred as Planned, but Concerns About Noise Persist. Washington, D.C.: Author, 2001. A government report on the less-than-successful move to make jet aircraft quieter.
  • World Health Organization. “Noise and Health.” A World Health Organization page on the impact of noise on health and well-being, with a section on aircraft noise. Includes links to relevant publications and pamphlets.

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