Since the use of floatplanes emerged as a major transportation mode in Southeast Alaska more than seven decades ago, the sound of their engines has echoed off the mountainsides of the canyon-like Gastineau Channel.
Floatplanes have become an indelible image associated with Juneau's unique character, but they also rankle the nerves of some downtown residents in the summer months.
A year ago, the Assembly passed an important resolution framing the city's posture on long-range tourism management entitled, "A Resolution Adopting Tourism Management Policies."
In addressing fixed-wing flightseeing, the policy reads, "While the CBJ commits to addressing the noise impacts associated with fixed-wing aircraft operating from the downtown Seadrome, it also recognizes the historical use of fixed-wing aircraft as an integral component of the Juneau waterfront."
Many of today's residents may not realize that downtown floatplane activity actually has declined over the past 14 years.
An analysis of flightseeing activity since 1989 will show a small decline in flights while the number of cruise ship passengers has increased almost four-fold.
Over the past 20 years, the city, along with floatplane operators and downtown residents, has explored ways to reduce floatplane noise along the downtown waterfront.
Since 1989 a number of changes have been adopted successfully to reduce noise. The measures include the elimination of all two-bladed propellers on Cessna 206s and de Havilland Beavers, a reduction in the hours of operation, and a reduction in the number of the loud 206s from 12 to just one by the year 2000.
Also during this period, floatplane operators reduced the number of takeoffs and landings, cut the number of departures to the Taku Lodge from six to five daily, and adjusted take-off and arrival routes and altitudes to reduce noise. The use of larger aircraft and limits on hours of operation resulted in a 35 percent decline in the number of departures.
Flightseeing operators have consistently demonstrated a resolve to address aircraft noise in the Gastineau bowl and to make it happen have willingly forfeited opportunity.
In an effort to further promote the use of quiet technology, the CBJ funded a study based on floatplane noise-monitoring tests conducted by Paul Dunholter of BridgeNet International. The tests took place earlier this summer.
In addition to the scientific methods employed, a number of residents on both sides of the channel participated in the noise-monitoring exercise. Three aircraft were used, including one with a conventional gas piston engine and two with different turbine engine designs. The observers were pleased with what they heard. Test results proved that the turbine engines were significantly quieter.
For the sake of comparison, noise from a passenger car traveling on a roadway 25 feet away measures 77 decibels (dBA), a jet on departure registers 96 dBA, and normal speech is 65 dBA.
The noise levels of the turbine-powered aircraft measured in residential areas in downtown Juneau and Douglas during the test averaged less than 65 dBA, the level at which ordinary speech could still be heard and understood.
Indoors with the windows closed, the level was only 45 dBA, permitting activities such as listening to television to occur without interference. In his report, Dunholter observed, "It is rare that this significant level of potential improvement ever occurs in aviation noise."
In addition to being quieter, the powerful turbine engines significantly reduce noise by shortening the length of time for takeoff and enable planes to clear the channel much faster than existing aircraft, thus reducing downtown residents' exposure to noise.
The study concluded with the recommendation that the CBJ promote the replacement of standard Otter piston-driven engines with turbine-powered planes.
The cost for the turbine engines is steep. Piston engines can cost as little as $30,000 each while retrofitting a plane with a turbine engine can cost as much as $500,000. Bob Jacobsen, a principal in Wings Airways, has agreed to invest $1 million to retrofit two planes with turbine engines.
The Assembly has set aside money from cruise ship passenger fees to address the noise issue. By providing low-interest loans as incentive to air carriers operating out of the downtown harbor, they are effectively tackling what has been identified as a significant tourism impact on Juneau residents.
Like a bank loan, the money will be paid back to the city.
This past week the Assembly Planning and Policy Committee endorsed issuing a revolving loan to Wings Airways to cover the investment in two turbine-powered engines. On Monday evening the CBJ Committee of the Whole will consider an ordinance transferring $500,000 in funding to the Noise Abatement Loan Program. These funds will cover half the cost of retrofitting two Otters with turbine engines.
PPC Chairman Dale Anderson stressed that the revolving loan is available to any floatplane carrier operating within the downtown harbor.
On another front, progress also is being made on helicopter noise abatement. The alternative heliports decision process, now in the environmental assessment phase of a three-part process, is moving forward with the help of $1.3 million in funding provided by the Federal Highway Administration and the U.S. Forest Service.
Assembly member Anderson was instrumental in securing the federal funds necessary to complete the EIS. There are still many issues to address and a feasibility study to complete before the location and concept can be determined. There will be more opportunity for public process, and ultimately it will be up to the helicopter companies to decide if the chosen site and investment will pass muster.
All parties involved in the flightseeing noise-abatement project are to be commended for their efforts to make Juneau a better place to live.