Peace and quiet at San Diego International Airport: Soundproofing in practice

Aircraft abovehouses in SANEver since the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina more than a century ago, in a contraption built of bailing wire and bicycle parts, airplanes have been turning heads, and making noise. Modern aircraft contribute to this more than ever before. As anyone who lives under the a departure pattern can tell you, take offs have a way of blotting out large chucks of telephone conversations and TV programs, especially during warmer weather, when windows are open.

That’s where at San Diego County’s Airport Authority’s the Quieter Home Program (QHP) steps in. Begun in 2001, the program uses grant funding provided through the Federal Aviation Authority’s Part 150 Noise Compatibility Study. These moneys are generated from user fees paid by airlines and the traveling public.

Since the program began, 1,600 homes have been upgraded to mitigate aircraft noise. But about 9,000 homes are still on the waiting list. My own residence at the Point Loma Tennis Club falls into this still “to do” category. At projected current upgrade progress, the program could continue for another 20 years, or even longer.

In 2008 the QHP availed itself of $25 million in such grants, some of which were encumbered and carried over from previous years. Normally it’s $10 to $12 million a year which pays for the soundproofing of 300 to 600 homes, depending on their size and complexity. Historic homes from the turn of the last century to the 1920’s and 30’s, are much more complex and challenging to update, than modern homes.

Ms Knack (in blue)Heading these efforts, is Sjohnna M. Knack (in photo in blue). A soft spoken, sincere and engaging program director with a degree in aviation management. Prior to this project she worked as Systems Manager at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and before that, she was the noise-abatement coordinator for the Washoe County Airport Authority in Reno. She has been with the QHP for 3,5 years, and heads a staff of 20 friendly administrative employees. In addition some 50-60 technical consulting staff are available as private contractors.

Knack enjoys positively impacting those who benefit from the QHP, improving the quality of their lives by facilitating things most of us take for granted – a more restful sleep, and telephone conversations uninterrupted by jet noise.

Noise abatement measures
There are basically four ways in which aircraft noise can be controlled and mitigated. These include (1) land acquisition and land use zoning around airports, (2) improving aircraft frame and engine designs, (3) limiting airport hours of operations, and controlling flight patterns and engine power settings during takeoffs, and (4) modifying and soundproofing existing structures.

This last approach is where the QHP excels. Knack is mandate by the FAA to soundproof residence, schools which were given first priority, places of worship, and noise sensitive businesses, such as day care centers , that are situated within the airport’s noise contour of 65 decibels (dB(A)) or higher. Currently Knack’s team is working on reducing interior noise levels in the 67 and 66 dB(A) contour range.

Typical soundproofing measures include, among others, sliding acoustic windows, solid core doors, attic insulation, exterior heat pumps, air conditioning and ventilation.

The FAA measurement standard for a successful noise abatement retrofit, is to reduce interior noise levels by 5 dB, which mathematically equals over 60% decrease in outside environmental noise. That is significant and noticeable. It also results in a much quieter living space.

Aircraft produce the greatest amount of engine noise on departure, when they are climbing and need higher power settings for operational safety. Noise coming from an aircraft depends on type of equipment and distance or altitude. For example, a DC-9 at one mile high produces 90 dB of sound. In comparison, car alarms cab reach levels up to 102 dB. In this respect the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cautions against unprotected noise of 85 decibels, slightly less than a gasoline powered lawn mower, for longer than eight hours a day.

Contours SAN airportWhile the FAA is concerned with aircraft noise complaints, Sjohnna Knack highlights that the QHP objective is to comply with Title 21 of California’s State Noise Ordinance, by proving to the State that businesses and residences within flight traffic patterns meet 65 dB contour compatibility. This is a legal way of saying that people inside these structures are able to carry on normal conversations, without substantial hindrance of aircraft noise. This proof of compliance comes in the form of Avigation Easements, documents that property owners sign relinquishing their rights to sue over noise issues. These are filed with the County Clerk’s office after soundproofing has been completed.

If an airport cannot meet the State noise ordinance requirements, it can apply for a Noise Variance from the State, or it can acquire land under the airport’s flight patterns, and remove such property from residential or commercial zoning. Even in the depressed Southern California real estate market, buying such properties are not feasible. Getting a Noise Variance is cumbersome, and requires a formal application and public hearing before an administrative law judge. So the best approach is what the QHP is already doing, making homes quieter.

Rate of success?
Is Sjohnna Knack successful at her task? Yes, she is. According to Ms. Knack the program reached a rate of 98% satisfaction. This was validated by a post construction questionnaire, which was given to every homeowner, along with their warranty package. She further states that the goal is to build on this reputation, by doing excellent work, being open and transparent, answering all homeowners questions, using the latest new technologies, high quality materials and the most competent contractors.

However, not everyone goes along with the program. In fact, the opt-out rate is between 5-10%. Some homeowners just don’t want to be bothered with having a parade of workers disrupt their lives. For many, the deal breaker is that the new high-tech materials used in the program, like vinyl framed windows, do not fit the character of high value, up market older homes.

San Diego AirportSome homeowners have expressed concerns that signing the required Avigation Easement will give the San Diego Regional Airport Authority a blank check to operate flights at all hours of the day or night, and permit noisier equipment. But this is rebutted by the airport. According to an airport spokesperson, San Diego International Airport plans on keeping its 11:30 pm to 6:30 am curfew intact for departing traffic. Arriving flights have always been allowed to land 24 hours a day, because engine power is reduced when an aircraft lands, and there is much less noise generated.

As for me, after many hours of research by the QHP and interviews, I still had my own affairs to complete. Reviewing and signing off on the design elements for retrofitting my house. People from the Program met with me and patiently went over all the details and notes that were contained in a stack of documents, and demonstrated my new sliding acoustic windows. One of the programs engineers answered all my questions about replacing filters for my home’s climate control system, including costs, frequency and the availability of these filters. He even looked up the decibel ratings of the new equipment that will be installed. So, I now can get more peace and quiet from San Diego International Airport than ever before.

Joel Siegfried from San Diego, USAAbout the Author
Joel Siegfried is freelance journalist and is currently in the design phase of having his condominium upgraded by the QHP. He holds a Masters degree from St. John’s University (New York) in Information Sciences. To contact Joel Siegfried, please mail to

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