Skip to main Content
Anchorage

For some in Anchorage, it’s been the summer of airplane noise. But just wait until next year.

By the end of June, Dana Seagars had heard enough. He downloaded a decibel-measuring app for his phone.

The busy north-south runway at Anchorage's Ted Stevens International Airport is closed for major construction work this summer, forcing the re-routing of takeoffs for up to 160 jets a day over neighborhoods at the heart of the city rather than Cook Inlet.

More than a few of those jets take a banking turn above O'Malley Road that seemed to go right by the window of Seagars' mid-Hillside house. One night, he counted 10 jets between 1:15 a.m. and 2:15 a.m.

The next time a jet flew low, Seagars walked out on his deck and took a decibel reading. The sound was between 84 and 94 decibels, he said.

"That's an alarm clock or power tools," Seagars said. "So tell me what you would do if your neighbor got up between midnight and 5 a.m. and ran his power saw four times, right outside your window?"

For some in Anchorage, this has been the summer of airplane noise.

As the airport begins a two-year, $100 million project to resurface and expand the heavily used north-south runway, some people living along the temporary alternate flight path using east-west runways — straight east up West International Airport Road and Tudor Road, the asphalt seams of the Anchorage Bowl — have reported lost sleep, windows kept closed on warm days and frantic pets.

An Atlas Air Boeing 747 freighter takes off towards the east at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Monday, July 9, 2018, as a Polar Air Cargo jet taxis for take off. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Airport officials emphasize that the noise associated with the closed runway is temporary and the construction is necessary to keep a major driver of Anchorage's economy functioning. A lot of people annoyed with the noise say they understand that.

And while this year's construction will allow for a partial reopening of the north-south runway on Wednesday — meaning fewer planes taking off over the city — it's temporary.

The second phase of the project will force a total shutdown of the runway from May through October of 2019.

A major project

The airport has been planning for years to resurface and widen the north-south runway from 150 feet to 200 feet to accommodate larger, newer planes such as the Boeing 747-8, said airport manager Jim Szczesniak.

And the runway is just due for resurfacing, said Szczesniak. The asphalt wears out with time and use "just like a driveway," he said.

It's the first major resurfacing in 15 years, and the work is expected to take two full construction seasons to complete. Some work is also being done on airport taxiways, he said. Most of the project is funded with Federal Aviation Administration grants and entitlements, he said. The rest comes from airport revenue.

An Icelandair passenger jet departs Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport to the east over the city on Monday, July 9, 2018, as work continues on the north/south runway. (Bill Roth / ADN)

The construction means the north-south runway is closed and planes must fly in from the west and take off heading east — directly over a swath of Spenard and midtown Anchorage, with some veering toward the Hillside as they climb.

It's a big change from the norm, said Szcesniak. Normally, people in Anchorage get the benefits of having a major international airport with fewer of the drawbacks because of the ability to use the north-south approach and takeoff routes, he said.

"The airport is a very good neighbor because 99 percent of the time we arrive and depart over the water."

Planes taking off and flying low over neighborhoods is common at other busy airports around the country, he said. In Chicago, where he used to work, "you have planes flying over you all the time," he said. "Anchorage is fortunate."

Szczesniak points out that the airport is a major force in Anchorage's economy, and that the construction is a big investment in its future. The Anchorage Economic Development Corporation says that one in every 10 jobs in the city is directly tied to the airport.

He also emphasized that the noise is temporary.

Starting Wednesday, Anchorage residents sick of the noise may find some relief. The airport is going to reopen a shortened version of the north-south runway, Szczesniak said. Some pilots of smaller airplanes may be able to use it, but it's not clear how many or how much it will change the number of take-offs over the city.

"It could be significant," he said.

A UPS Boeing 747 taxis for takeoff as construction work continues on the north/south runway at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on Monday, July 9, 2018. (Bill Roth / ADN)

"Never experienced anything close to this" 

But for some Anchorage residents, the torment is real.

Katherine West said she's moved bedrooms in her Geneva Woods home in an attempt to get away from the noise. During last week's warm spell, she kept the windows closed. Lack of sleep has made her short-tempered, said the retired editor with the U.S. Geological Survey.

Jester Refuerzo, 16, shoots hoops at the Northwood ABC Elementary School playground as a UPS jet takes off from Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport on July 9, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

She said she understands the need for construction, but the schedule is relentless, especially in the early morning. Schedules vary, but planes tend to take off in clusters, according to the airport — including a cluster of red-eye passenger flights around midnight.

West wonders if the airport can negotiate with airlines — particularly those carrying cargo, not passengers — to change flight schedules.

That's not really feasible, said airport manager Szczesniak. Federal Aviation Administration rules mean the airport needs to be open for air carriers around the clock, he said.

People have also asked why flights can't take-off from the inlet side. That would be dangerous because it would mean jets would be departing and taking off toward each other, Szczesniak said.

Ben English, who lives near Northwood Park, has been awoken by rattling windows and booming jet sounds. He's been keeping his windows closed in hot weather because the noise was "freaking the house pets out," he said. It has been loud enough to drown out TV and radio noise and interrupt conversations.

"I've lived in this neighborhood since 2001 and have never experienced anything close to this," he wrote in an e-mail that included a bulleted list of his airplane noise woes.

They didn't agree on everything, but he appreciated it and says he hopes there's a solution to be found before next summer.

Not everyone minds the noise.

"Airports and airfields have been here for longer than nearly all the residents," said John McCormick, a former avionics technician in the U.S. Air Force. "(The airport) is a major revenue stream for the city and state."

The low-flying planes have been a particular bonanza for airplane obsessed toddlers, said Michelle Goss.

She lives near Tudor Elementary School, where the planes fly so low "you can see the details on the underbelly," she said. Her son is delighted. When they hear the jet noise, "he'll race to the window and wave his arms in excitement," she said.

Outside, he chases shadows across the yard. At night she uses a YouTube video of white noise sounds to help him sleep. The airplanes are a delight to him, she said.

"He does anything he can to watch them as long as he can," she said. "How could I not be happy at his excitement?"

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments