When it comes to airport noise, Reagan's FAA would like a bigger say

Despite the Reagan administration talk of returning powers to local control, one federal administrator wants his agency at the controls when it comes to muffling airport noise.

To cut down on citizen noise complaints and ward off lawsuits, airports have tried everything from buying surrounding property as buffer zones to setting nighttime curfews on traffic and requiring pilots to follow strict noise-reduction procedures on takeoff and landing.

Such measures might appear innocuous to some observers, but not to J. Lynn Helms, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). While other federal agencies are looking to hand back responsibilities to states and local governments, Mr. Helms wants the FAA to take a tighter hold on airport noise rules.

He considers local efforts to regulate noise as an attack on the smooth and economical operation of the airport system -- an attack that could cost taxpayers and hurt the national interest in years to come.

Accordingly, his legal staff is drafting legislation to send to Capitol Hill this summer that would give the FAA the right to approve or veto such local moves. The FAA would also take on part of the expenses incurred by its vetos.

This move to increase FAA powers on the noise issue is not unprecedented. It has been suggested before by the airline industry. If enacted, it would mark a revolutionary change for the federal air safety watchdog agency. Traditionally, Washington has argued that it must control airspace for safety reasons but that landing space and liability issues are the proper province of local airports.

A number of factors suggest that the time may be ripe for a larger federal role. A National League of Cities survey last year indicated that aircraft noise is a problem in some 495 cities around the country and that 95 of them have some kind of legislation controlling it. Helms calls efforts to require pilots to reduce power on takeoff an unattractive trade-off between noise reduction and safety. He also argues that 15 years of effort to cut back on aircraft noise through retrofitting and improving aircraft engines has almost exhausted the technological possibilities.

Helms first made his proposal for a change in a speech last February in Dallas. The feedback since then has been considerable and mixed, according to FAA spokesman Chuck Murchison.

''He (Helms) was as much looking for ideas and dialogue as making an actual proposition,'' Mr. Murchison says. ''We can't see anything coming but a greater demand on the system which will increase the noise problem.''

cl11 At this stage there is no way to know if Helms proposal, or a variation of it, will get off the ground. Certainly there is widespread support among pilots, airlines, and many passengers for the concept of greater federal control of the noise problem.

''There is a strong argument on policy and economic grounds for having uniform standards,'' concedes Con Hitchcock, who is in charge of aviation issues for Ralph Nader's Public Citizen Litigation Group.

A detailed proposal, however, could prove far more controversial. One key issue is just how much of the added cost of curfews and local noise abatement procedures the FAA would bear. The Airport Operators Council International (AOCI), the group representing most airport proprietors, is unlikely to support the shift unless the FAA accepts full legal and financial liability.

''We agree with the administrator that airport capacity is a very scarce resource that we can't afford to give away'' and that the current situation is ''messy,'' says AOCI vice-president Jack Corbett. ''But it's still questionable as to whether the proposal would force proprietors to pay a higher price to keep airports open.''

If the FAA takes on the financial burden, some congressional sources say that any sense of local responsibility could disappear, and airports might rush to set new curfews in hopes of reimbursement with federal money. The FAA then could be in for more than it bargained for, these sources say.

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