New citizen website could send O’Hare jet noise complaints soaring

(CHICAGO) A new, user-friendly citizen website threatens to send record complaints about O’Hare International Airport jet noise soaring even higher, the Chicago Sun-Times reports.

The new jet noise-reporting site racked up more than 2,000 O’Hare noise beefs in the first 24 hours after the Fair Allocation in Runways coalition, known as FAIR, announced its existence last Monday. That’s nearly 30 percent of what the city’s complaint system reported for the entire month of February 2014.

Last month, a test group of new website users logged more than twice the number of O’Hare jet noise beefs for the month as the city had compiled by phone and online the previous January, the website’s developer, Darrin Thomas, said Tuesday.

“I think there’s a good possibility that the numbers will continue to rise pretty dramatically,” said Thomas, a FAIR member.

The app-like website, at, automatically forwards all complaints it receives about O’Hare or Midway jet noise to the city’s online reporting system.

And, in an unusual move, it features the unique ability to report a constant stream of planes — up to 80 over a two-hour period — in one quick visit.

FAIR members contend that the website should more accurately capture the impact of O’Hare jet noise since the big switch in O’Hare flight paths in October 2013 — a move intended to expand capacity and reduce delays.

Since then, roughly 70 percent of all planes approach O’Hare from the east, flying over the city, and depart to the west, impacting Bensenville, Wood Dale and Itasca. Many homeowners in those areas say they were blindsided by the blitz of new planes over their heads.

The new website follows complaints from three Illinois members of Congress, several suburban officials and FAIR members about the city’s current jet noise reporting system.

They contend beefs routed to Chicago’s 311 non-emergency number wind up dropped or trapped in irrelevant phone prompts.

The website allows access to users on a smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop. Once a citizen uses the site, it automatically fills in some responses — such as the complainant’s name and email — during the user’s next visit. That means users can complete subsequent complaints in real time with as little as a single tap.

The site also lets homeowners report “multiple aircraft” occuring every 1 to 2 minutes; every 2 to 4 minutes; or every 4 to 6 minutes. And they can report that they were subjected to that frequency of flights for 30 minutes, an hour, 1 1/2 hours or 2 hours, Thomas said.

The site breaks a “multiple aircraft” report into individual beefs and sends each off to the city, using the average of any time span entered to determine the number of complaints it generates, Thomas said. So a report of a disruptive plane every 1 to 2 minutes over two hours would generate 80 complaints to the city with one hit on the “report” button.

“That’s the game-changer,” Thomas said. “It makes it so people can report every loud plane, rather than only the ones they have time to report.

“So I am expecting the numbers to skyrocket and give this issue the attention it deserves.”

By day, Thomas, 38, works as a website manager for Morningstar Inc., a Chicago-based financial research firm. He got the idea to put his Web skills to work on jet noise complaints after he noticed how cumbersome it was to report the multiple planes he saw while taking his dog for long walks in his Lincoln Square neighborhood in the 40th Ward.

“There are occasions where there are planes flying overhead every 40 seconds and instead of having to go to the website every 40 seconds and file yet another report, I’m allowing you, after an hour of this, to file multiple reports at one time,” Thomas said.

He said planes also wake him up in the middle of the night, when he’s too tired to report them. This too, is covered in the website, which allows users to indicate if the jet noise disturbed their sleep, an outside activity, a conversation or their “quality of life” in general. Although the current time automatically pops up in a complaint form, the time can be amended as needed for disruptive flights reported hours after they occurred.

The general locations of the most recent 200 or so complaints are available for viewing on the “About” tab of the website, as well as the total number of complaints filed within the last 24 hours, the last 7 days and the last month.

It was not clear how many of the first day’s beefs were mistakes by citizens experimenting with the website, or whether that volume of complaints would continue. But Thomas expected residents to adjust to the site quickly and for it to start reflecting a more accurate depiction of the impact of O’Hare and Midway jet noise “almost immediately.”

All complaints are automatically forwarded to the city’s jet noise website, while also allowing FAIR to retain a log of them, FAIR leader Jac Charlier said.

Previously, he said, citizens were “completely relying on what the city tells us about complaints. Now we have the data. It levels the playing field.”

During a meeting of the O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission last September, member and Harwood Heights Mayor Arlene Jezierny questioned if the city’s complaint tallies were accurate, given that she had failed about 20 times over a few months to get through on the hotline. Each time her call was routed to the city’s 311 number, where she said she got trapped in useless prompts for potholes and other problems.

At that same meeting, commission member and Schiller Park Mayor Barbara Piltaver questioned why complaints she made about the hotline in May 2014 had not been addressed.

In only a few months, Charlier said, FAIR was able to come up with a more modern and accurate version of the city’s online reporting system. It’s simplicity could persuade some 311 hotline callers to switch to using the website on their cellphones.

“The city apparently was not capable of taking a 1995 website and bringing it up to 2015 standards,” Charlier said. “It took us three to four months. It wasn’t that big a deal.

“If they care, they could have done it,” he said.

Last November, U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley, Jan Schakowsky and Tammy Duckworth, all Illinois Democrats, wrote then-City Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie Andolino asking that the city open a call-in line dedicated solely to jet noise beefs rather than rely on the 311 line for both city and suburban noise complaints.

Three months later, Quigley has yet to hear a response, a spokeswoman for the congressman said Tuesday.

“Our constituents in Chicago have told us repeatedly that their calls are dropped or not answered in a timely fashion,” the three representatives wrote to Andolino, who has since left her city post. “Our constituents from the suburbs are sometimes told their calls can’t be taken. It’s no wonder that many of our constituents feel that the very system put in place to record their concerns is simply ignoring them instead.”

Although Charlier has repeatedly accused Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel of being “missing in action” on the O’Hare jet noise issue, Charlier said the website’s release was not timed to coincide with the Feb. 24 mayoral election. It has been under development for several months, he said.

But FAIR officials are hoping more accurate jet noise numbers will trigger some solutions.

Monthly O’Hare jet noise complaints have soared to record numbers — over 30,000 in a month — since the new flight paths debuted, without much public talk about the issue by the mayor. Meanwhile, Chicago Department of Aviation reports regularly point out that many of the complaints are generated from a handful of homes — a comment some have blasted as unfairly dismissive.

“To me, 30,000 complaints in a month is significant but if it’s not significant enough to warrant a response, then let’s make it more accurate,” Thomas said. “If it turns into 100,000, that seems like a much more difficult number to ignore.”

City Hall and Chicago Department of Aviation representatives did not respond to emailed questions about what action the city had taken to improve its jet noise hotline following congressional and suburban mayoral complaints that date to last May.

But O’Hare Noise Compatibility Commission executive director Jeanette Camacho said by email: “Complaint calls are very important to [the Commission] and we will continue to monitor and discuss improvements at our Technical Committee meeting.”


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