ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – If you’ve spent any time in Albuquerque, you’ve probably heard a plane or two flying in or out of the Sunport. In fact, with around 150,000 takeoffs and landings each year, you’ve probably heard a few.
But for some residents, the noise has been unbearable. And they’ve complained to the airport. But what happens to those complaints?
To find out, KRQE News 13 received a copy of every complaint submitted to Sunport’s online information portal. KRQE spoke with some of the people who submitted multiple complaints. And their experiences show there are not many options for reducing noise.
Who’s complaining anyway?
Since the Sunport launched a webpage in 2018 where residents could submit noise complaints, there have only been about 230 complaints submitted, the records reveal. But those complaints do come from just about every corner of the city.
Of course, most complaints come from residents who live near the Sunport — in neighborhoods such as Southeast Heights and Parkland Hills. But there are complaints from as far away as Paseo Del Norte Boulevard and the Tanoan East neighborhood (spoiler alert: That complaint was actually for the KRQE News 13 helicopter).
Some of the complaints are one-time submissions from city residents. But several residents have submitted dozens of complaints. One couple submitted more than 90 in a single year.
“We get return flights of Ospreys,” says Larry Levy, who lives in the Ridgecrest neighborhood. “At 11 o’clock at night when you’re supposed to be asleep — I’m supposed to be asleep — they start coming back in, and it happens really frequently.”
He says it feels like he and his wife can hear the flight noise almost daily. And they’ve filed complaints. Some days in 2018, they submitted multiple complaints. In total, they filed 91 complaints through the Sunport’s system.
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Complaints come from across Albuquerque, but tend to cluster in Ridgecrest and Four Hills. Data: ABQ Sunport.
So what does the city do with complaints?
For each complaint that is submitted, the Sunport looks at the complaint and generates a flight track for review. The city’s Aviation Department says they investigate the complaints and then they’ll call the person who made the complaint to answer any questions.
Some of the people who made complaints told KRQE News 13 that they feel like they don’t receive much feedback after the complaints are made. The city’s Aviation Department says they do respond, but won’t respond to multiple instances of the same complaint, as per Federal Aviation Administration policy.
So the Sunport hears complaints. But the city’s Aviation Department says they have no control over flight paths.
“The U.S. Government has exclusive sovereignty over the nation’s airspace,” Manny Manriquez, a spokesperson for the airport, told KRQE News 13. “Neither the City nor its employees have the authority to control the operation of aircraft in the surrounding airspace or on the Sunport’s runways and taxiways.”
And the Federal Aviation Administration policy says they don’t use noise complaints to justify making changes to routes. So, for some making complaints, they wonder what the point of the complaint system is.
Levy says the complaint system hasn’t really helped with issues he’s complained about. “It was kind of like they were just appeasing us and never really did anything,” he told KRQE News 13.
He’s not alone in feeling like the complaints simply go into a black box. Elena Mitchel made more than 20 complaints throughout 2020 and 2021, but says it’s not clear if they led to any changes.
“I’m like, maybe they just have this page so that people can get their frustration out by making complaints,” Mitchel speculates. “I have no idea.”
Doesn’t the city have a noise ordinance?
Albuquerque does have a Noise Control Ordinance intended to keep residents safe and keep neighborhoods peaceful. But the rules only go so far.
Broadly speaking, the ordinance says that in residential areas, no one is allowed to make noise above 50 decibels after 10:00 p.m. And during the day, starting at 7:00 a.m., residential noise shouldn’t exceed 55 decibels. The city says that’s “roughly as loud as a normal conversation.”
But most residents have likely heard much louder noises in their neighborhood. After all, garbage trucks, school bands, and bus routes regularly exceed those limits.
So what’s the deal? There’s a list of exceptions to the city’s noise ordinance. Zoos, mass transit, fireworks displays, and daily garbage collection are among those exempt. And you guessed it, aircraft and airports are also exempt.
What’s the big deal? It’s just noise, right?
It is just noise. But for some of the residents who have complained, it’s noise that they say impacts their health. Dustin Spaulding, who used to live in the Four Hills neighborhood before moving — in part because of the noise — says he dreaded hearing the planes.
“It’s like your baseline stress level is always high,” he says. “It took me a while after moving out of there, to calm, to actually get to where I could sit down and enjoy peace and quiet without this constant lingering feeling of dread.”
The airplane noise “has a certain special quality about it,” he adds. “It’s almost like . . . you’re in a dark room and there’s someone in that room with you who’s gonna punch you in the gut. But you can’t see him and you can’t hear him.”
“You’re just constantly on-edge waiting.”
Larry Levy, from the Ridgecrest area, says the planes can affect sleep: “It’s noisy and and it causes a person to not sleep well. And then if you wake up and you’re angry or grumpy, you don’t perform well at work or in athletics or whatever you may be doing.”
Academic research on the issue is varied but generally points to negative health impacts of aircraft noise. A 2017 study published in the journal Noise Health sums up other studies over the years to conclude that airplane noise can negatively affect child development and residents’ sleep. There have even been some studies linking aircraft noise to heart disease and stroke — although the research is not comprehensive and other studies did not find a connection.
Does the noise only come from large planes?
If the complaints submitted to the Sunport are any indication, no. Small planes are often the focus of noise complaints as well.
That’s particularly true when a helicopter or small aircraft is circling over one area. The Albuquerque Police Department (APD) does this fairly regularly.
“We live really close to the airport, so it’s like, I’m totally fine with the military planes and the commercial planes that go by frequently,” says resident “These little, small white unmarked planes that would come and just circle overhead endlessly. Like sometimes it would be even for hours at a time,” says resident Elena Mitchel. “And they were super loud. And it was just this endless, loud buzzing noise overhead.”
What Elena Mitchel didn’t know was that the noise was coming from APD’s plane.
“When the aircraft is orbiting in the same general area, it is on mission working on a call for service,” explains Rebecca Atkins, an APD spokesperson. “When not on a call for service, the aircraft make large citywide patrols checking areas throughout the city, avoiding staying in one area to reduce prolonged noise impact.”
“Aircraft respond to and search for offenders of shots-fired calls, helping clear the area and locate hazards to officers prior to their approach,” Atkins says. “Aircraft help suppress offender movement and reduce search time in large-perimeter searches, aiding officers in locating dangerous offenders more quickly, which also aids us in the protection of our citizens.”
And she says noise complaints regarding APD aircraft are fairly common. To try to minimize the noise impact, APD says they try to fly at higher altitudes, such as 1,000 feet above ground level or more.
Curtis Segarra is a data-focused reporter at KRQE News 13. You can send story ideas or follow Curtis on Twitter.