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Sunday Record, October 1, 2000

High Anxiety Planes
Alarm Teterboro’s neighbors

By Doug Most, Staff Writer,

It’s 8 p.m. as you sit in your living room when the whir of an engine roars by and headlights shine in the window. A passing car, no doubt.

Except this is an upper floor of a high-rise apartment building.

Welcome to William Danzenhagen’s world, and Martin Goldenberg’s and Sharon Klein’s – a few among the hundreds of people who live in high-rises in Hackensack, and in homes nearby, who say the noise from jets approaching Teterboro Airport has grown from tolerable to unbearable in the last year.

"There are nights I will sit in my living room and I feel like I’m sitting on a highway," said Danzenhagen, who lives on the 17th floor of Eiffel Tower, an apartment building on Prospect Avenue in Hackensack.

The source of the residents’ angst is a new approach for planes landing on Teterboro’s Runway 19, designed to help pilots land safely in bad weather by using their planes’ instruments. Planes start on a straight-line approach for the runway from 5.9 miles to the north, around Oradell, and gradually descend, passing over Hackensack to roughly 1,500 feet. But along Prospect Avenue, which sits on a hill and where many of the buildings have 15 to 20 stories, the distance between the descending planes and the high-rises is much less.

"I have all the respect in the world for people in those high rise4s, on the 19th floor," said Jim Buckles, the assistant manager for traffic in the FAA’s Eastern Region. "But we didn’t pick that route. That route simply aligned with Runway 19. There were no options. That route allows planes to use their instruments on approach to Teterboro. It was done for safety."

Even if the approach route could be moved, he said, it is unlikely an alternative could be found that wouldn’t similarly raise the ire of residents elsewhere. "It’s not easy to aim an airplane over a sparsely populated area in Northern New Jersey."

The complaints of Hackensack’s high-rise dwellers reflect just the latest round in a long-standing feud between one of the country’s busiest general aviation airports and its neighbors in one of the nation’s most densely populated areas.

More than 100,000 people live within two miles of the airport, where 500 planes take of and/or land each day, mostly corporate jets.

Residents – those in Hackensack, as well as their counterparts in many south Bergen towns – say Teterboro Airport has become too busy, too loud, and too dangerous for overcrowded North Jersey. In January and February of this year, records show decibel levels of 90 or higher recorded 75 times at Hackensack University Medical Center and Hillers School, which is like standing next to a tractor of a subway as it roars by.

Even some pilots have said the airport is a challenging place to land at night because so many bright lights in the area make it difficult to spot.

Aviation officials, however, say the airport’s safety record is stellar, that the airport is trying to be a good neighbor, and it contributes thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to the region’s economy. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says 600,000 people in 1990 lived in areas significantly affected by aircraft noise from Teterboro, but today it’s about 50,000 because of various improvements.

But for all the good Teterboro brings, residents say none of it matters when their dinner conversations are drowned out, their backyard barbecues are interrupted, and their sleep is disturbed by planes that sound as if they will land in their living rooms.

The Port Authority, which manages the airport, says it is surprised the new approach, called ILS-19 (Instrument Landing System-19), has caused a ruckus since its debut in June 1999. A 1998 FAA study said ILS-19 would "not have a significant effect on the surrounding area."

Residents, however, say the study was based on 160,000 annual aircraft movements, and that now there are 25,000 more each year at the airport. They say a new study based on more accurate figures should be done.

The FAA says the new route is used only 20 percent of the time – only in poor visibility, so air traffic controllers can more easily track the planes and keep them separated as they come in to land.

But even 20 percent is too much for residents, who have written letters, called politicians, and attended public meetings, begging for relief. They talk of suing, but acknowledge it seems they are fighting a fight that can’t be won.

Despite their belief that Teterboro is busier than ever, its number of takeoffs and landings has declined since peaking in 1967 at 279,246 flights. Last year, the airport handled 185,375 operations, down 6,000 from 1990. During that time, however, the majority of that traffic has become jet airplanes.

One reason is that flight schools have been less active at Teterboro, meaning there have been fewer "touch-and-go’s," where a student touches down on the runway and lifts off, counting as a landing and takeoff.

"As that small stuff went away and was replaced by corporate activity, you’ve had fewer movements," said Susan Baer, general manager of New Jersey airports for the Port Authority.

Fewer, but not few enough for residents. Nothing irks them more than when someone reminds them that the airport, the oldest in the region whose first flight was in 1919, was there long before they moved in.

"The dilemma lies in the fact that communities have no control over the airports," Hackensack Mayor John "Jack" Zisa said, "Residents need to know what doors they should be knocking on."

With thousands of streets in Hackensack and the surrounding towns, residents say what puzzles them most is how the new flight path chosen as safe and not intrusive is the one that brings planes just a few hundred feet over the rooftops of the only high-rise apartment buildings in Hackensack, and directly over Hackensack University Medical Center.

"I have sat bedside with patients when a plan flew right over, and it’s scary," said Dr. Kevin Heaney, a Hackensack dentist. "If it’s scary in my house, it’s going to be more scary if I’m lying in hospital bed at 2 a.m."

"Hackensack has one street, Prospect Avenue, with high-rises and the hospital, and they pick that street," said Ed Kleiman, another tenant in Eiffel Tower. "It’s an accident waiting to happen."

To be sure, there is a history of accidents around Teterboro Airport.

A midair collision in 1985 killed five people in two planes and one on the ground, after one plane slammed into a Cliffside Park apartment building and the second showered the area with debris. It happened again in December, when a pilot bound for Teterboro apparently lost his bearings and his plane plummeted into the back yard of a Hasbrouck Heights home, killing four people on the plane, but no one on the ground.

And in 1988, all four people aboard a Learjet 35A died when the pilot nose-dived it at full power into a West Paterson hillside minutes after takeoff from Teterboro. Though the aircraft narrowly missed numerous houses, there were no injuries on the ground.

After each of those crashes, residents cried out for help, fearful it was only a matter of time before a huge disaster left dozens dead.

One of their greatest concerns is that Teterboro will soon be accepting larger planes, above 100,000 pounds, such as the Boeing 737.

"We have 100,000-pound limit at Teterboro, and at this point it is our intention to continue that," Baer said. "We think it’s the right size.

She said Boeing "has been knocking on our door" to introduce its new business jet to corporations that use Teterboro – a variation of the 737. "But we have told them over and over we have a 100,000-pound limit, and if they make an airplane in that limit we’ll be happy to accommodate it."

Efforts of that type, keeping bigger planes out, she said, should help reassure people the Port Authority is hearing their concerns about Teterboro.

"About 1,500 people work there, so it’s an important economic generator," Baer said. "But we need to be better neighbors. We are beginning to soundproof schools, and we are looking at installing structures at the airport that absorb noise and make it quieter in the nearby neighborhoods."

Soundproofing homes, something residents have asked for, is much less likely to occur because of the cost, including a prerequisite lengthy and expensive federal study.

"My medicine chest shakes so much I have to be careful when I open it," said Sharon Klein, who lives on the top floor of Eiffel Tower.

A more realistic solution would be finding a way to quiet the planes that land at Teterboro. Airplanes weighing more than 75,000 pounds are required to use Stage 3 engines, the quietest. However, most planes using Teterboro weigh less than 75,000 pounds, and have no requirement that they use the quieter equipment.

"We are working with federal officials to change that," Baer said. "We think that’s a good thing to do.

Stage 1 and Stage 2 aircraft account for roughly 15 percent of all planes using Teterboro, yet cause 90 percent of the noise violations at the airport.

Those violations are why residents want the Port Authority to impose a curfew on late-night flights, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m.

"We cannot arbitrarily institute a curfew," Baer said. "We can do it if a study tells you there would be minimal impact [on air traffic]. But we cannot limit access to the airport for some and not for others."

Although Teterboro and other airports have instituted "voluntary" curfews, they have proven to be mostly meaningless and have had zero impact.

In a summer 1999 letter to U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman, D-Fair Lawn, the Port Authority wrote that aircraft arrivals and departures between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. "account for less than 7 percent of the average, daily operations at this facility."

Most of the flights, the letter said, were night couriers delivering goods. Several flights a night are usually medical emergencies, such as organs being flown in, or bank couriers from Wall Street and the Federal Reserve.

One local pilot and aircraft broker who uses Teterboro said the airport, despite its large volume of traffic, feels safer than it did years ago. Bob Grinch of Ridgewood said the addition of a radar scope in the air traffic control tower allows controllers to "separate planes without having to first make visual contact out the window of the tower with binoculars or rely on a pilot making an inaccurate position report. It’s a huge improvement."

He said residents must learn to accept that airplane noise – be it from Teterboro or from commercial airliners – is a part of life in North Jersey.

"I live in Ridgewood and I don’t like the loud planes going over my house to Newark Airport," he said. "But there's nothing I can do about it."



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