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Los Angeles

Web Site Casts Ear on the Sky for Noisy Flights

Aviation: Residents near LAX can use the city-created system to identify offending planes right down to their tail numbers and altitude.

May 13, 2002|JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Westchester resident Danny Schneider is used to a certain amount of airport noise interrupting the early morning quiet. But when he stepped outside to pick up his newspaper one day recently, a low-flying turboprop plane overhead seemed even closer, and louder, than normal.

So Schneider did just what city officials and federal regulators hoped he would do: He went inside and used his computer to find out exactly how low the plane was flying, its tail number and which airline was operating it.

If it had been an egregious violation, which Schneider did not consider it to be, he could have reported the offending flight.

Schneider logged on to a new Web site--LAX Internet Flight Tracks--that was created by the city agency that operates Los Angeles International Airport so the 90,000 or so people living under the flight path can better monitor aircraft noise.

Officials hope that residents will use the site to gather information about wayward flights and report it directly to the airlines or the Federal Aviation Administration, which determines flight paths into and out of LAX.

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Web Site Averages 660 Visitors a Day

"If someone gets woken up at 3 a.m. because of an eastern departure, they can go online, click and see who it was, and call the airline and ask what they're doing," said Roger Johnson, deputy executive director of technology and environmental affairs for the city's airport agency. "We hope this will allow us to be responsive without being as labor intensive."

The airport's noise monitoring program lost employees and resources in the budget crunch after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, forcing officials to look for other ways to serve residents.

The flight tracking system--a year and $35,000 in the making--has logged about 660 users a day on average since it debuted this month.

It determines a plane's location by listening in on communications between an airplane's transponder--a device that sends a signal communicating unique information about the craft--and the FAA radar system at LAX.

Many airlines and airports already use this software to keep track of aircraft in the air and on the ground.

"This system allows a gate agent to tell people exactly when the aircraft will come in, when it will be able to leave, and if it has been delayed," said Ron Dunsky, director of marketing for Megadata Corp., the Greenwich, Conn., company that designed the Flight Tracks site for the city.

"The public doesn't have access to information at any other airports that people are going to get from LAX," Dunsky said.

Visitors to the site can view arriving and departing flights, shown in blue and green, respectively, and aircraft moving through the region, shown in black. All of it appears on a 10-minute delay for security reasons.

Planes are superimposed on a map of the Los Angeles area. Users can zoom in on neighborhoods, and view flight activity anywhere from six to 96 miles from the facility. Clicking on an airplane icon provides additional data including aircraft type, altitude and track identification number.

To get more information about a flight, surfers can wait an hour and use the site's replay function, which provides the airline, the tail number, the airport where the flight originated and its destination. The replay feature archives data for three months.

The system has several quirks, including the propensity for an icon to temporarily disappear from the screen when a flight passes directly over the radar antenna on the airport's western edge, causing the device to lose the transponder signal.

The site works best with a high-speed Internet connection and an updated browser. It's slow to load on dial-up Internet connections.

Members of the LAX Community Noise Roundtable, a year-old organization composed of representatives from 17 communities and agencies such as the FAA, said the site gives residents the ability to assess for themselves whether an aircraft has strayed from its flight path.

"A big 747-400 went right over the homes of people in Playa del Rey, and we were able to look up and find out who the offending aircraft was," said Westchester's Schneider, also a member of the Noise Roundtable.

"And then we could ask why did that plane do a go-around of their homes at 1,900 feet?" (A go-around is when an aircraft aborts a landing and flies back around the airport to approach the runway again.)

The ability to provide an airline and flight number when reporting problems has saved residents and airport officials time and headaches, Schneider said.

He added that in the past when residents called the airport about a flight, officials often were unable to find it on their manifest.

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Bay Area Uses Similar System

San Francisco aviation officials say a similar flight tracking system has allowed them to better communicate with communities about noise issues around San Francisco International Airport and San Jose and Oakland airports.

The year-old Bay Area site--live.airportnetwork.com/sfo/--is similar to the LAX site. It provides residents with the altitude and air speed for arriving and departing aircraft, but doesn't give the airline or tail number.

Residents can call the airport for this information, said Ron Wilson, a San Francisco airport spokesman, adding that the site averages about 300 hits a day. It doesn't have a replay feature.

"It has debunked the myth that the plane is really 500 feet over someone's house," Wilson said. "It makes it easier for us to live with each other."

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LAX Internet Flight Tracks is on the Web at www.lawa.org/lax/htmlenv/flighttracks.html.

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