Aircraft Noise: Better Information Sharing Could Improve Responses to Washington, D.C. Area Helicopter Noise Concerns

What GAO Found

According to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data for 2017 through 2019, over 50 helicopter operators conducted approximately 88,000 helicopter flights within 30 miles of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (D.C. area), though limited data on noise from these flights exist. According to operators, these flights supported various missions (see table below). While the number of flights has decreased slightly over the 3 years reviewed, it is unknown whether there has been a change in helicopter noise in the area. For example, most stakeholders do not collect noise data, and existing studies of helicopter noise in the area are limited. D.C. area airspace constraints—such as lower maximum altitudes near urban areas—combined with proximity to frequently traveled helicopter routes and operational factors may affect the noise heard by residents.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-Reported Helicopter Flights Conducted in the Washington, D.C. Area by Operator Mission, 2017–2019

Operator mission

Number of flights

Military

32,890 (37.4 percent)

Air medical

18,322 (20.9 percent)

Other aviation activity

13,977 (15.9 percent)a

State and local law enforcement

12,861 (14.6 percent)

Federal law enforcement and emergency support

5,497 (6.3 percent)

News

4,298 (4.9 percent)

Source: GAO analysis of FAA data. | GAO-21-200

Note: In this table, we refer to the Washington, D.C. area as including the area within 30 miles of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

aIncludes 666 flights for which FAA could not identify an operator or mission based on available historical records.

FAA and operators reported taking steps to address public concerns about helicopter noise in the D.C. area. FAA receives and responds to complaints on helicopter noise from the public through its Noise Ombudsman and has recently developed online forms that improve FAA’s ability to identify and respond to helicopter noise issues. Operators reported using FAA-recommended practices, such as flying at maximum altitudes and limiting night flights, to address helicopter noise in the D.C. area, but such practices are likely not feasible for operators with military, law enforcement, or air medical evacuation missions.

FAA’s and operators’ approach to addressing these issues in the D.C. area is impeded because they do not consistently or fully share the information needed to do so. According to nearly all the operators we interviewed, FAA has not communicated with operators about helicopter noise or forwarded complaints to them. Similarly, operators often receive noise complaints from the public—some complaints are not directed to the correct operator—but do not typically share these complaints with FAA. As a result, operators have not consistently responded to residents’ inquiries about helicopter noise and activity. By developing a mechanism for FAA and operators to share information, FAA could help improve responses to individual helicopter noise concerns and determine what additional strategies, if any, are needed to further address helicopter noise.

Why GAO Did This Study

Helicopter noise can potentially expose members of the public to a variety of negative effects, ranging from annoyance to more serious medical issues. FAA is responsible for managing navigable U.S. airspace and regulating noise from civil helicopter operations. Residents of the D.C. area have raised concerns about the number of helicopter flights and the resulting noise.

GAO was asked to review issues related to helicopter flights and noise within the D.C. area. Among its objectives, this report examines: (1) what is known about helicopter flights and noise from flights in the D.C. area, and (2) the extent to which FAA and helicopter operators have taken action to address helicopter noise in the D.C. area. GAO reviewed statutes, regulations, policies, and documents on helicopter noise. GAO analyzed (1) available data on helicopter operations and noise in the D.C. area for 2017 through 2019, and (2) FAA’s approach to responding to helicopter complaints. GAO also interviewed FAA officials; representatives from 18 D.C. area helicopter operators, selected based on operator type and number of flights; and 10 local communities, selected based on factors including geography and stakeholder recommendations.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FAA develop a mechanism to exchange helicopter noise information with operators in the D.C. area. FAA agreed with GAO’s recommendation.

For more information, contact Heather Krause at (202) 512-2834 or KrauseH@gao.gov.

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Moreover, one practice had not been implemented by any of the agencies. (See figure 2.) Figure 2: Extent to Which the 23 Civilian Chief Financial Officers Act Agencies Implemented Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Supply Chain Risk Management (SCRM) Practices As a result of these weaknesses, these agencies are at a greater risk that malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities in the ICT supply chain causing disruption to mission operations, harm to individuals, or theft of intellectual property. For example, without establishing executive oversight of SCRM activities, agencies are limited in their ability to make risk decisions across the organization about how to most effectively secure their ICT product and service supply chains. Moreover, agencies lack the ability to understand and manage risk and reduce the likelihood that adverse events will occur without reasonable visibility and traceability into supply chains. Officials from the 23 agencies cited various factors that limited their implementation of the foundational practices for managing supply chain risks. The most commonly cited factor was the lack of federal SCRM guidance. For example, several agencies reported that they were waiting for federal guidance to be issued from the Federal Acquisition Security Council—a cross-agency group responsible for providing direction and guidance to executive agencies to reduce their supply chain risks—before implementing one or more of the foundational practices. According to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) officials, the council expects to complete this effort by December 2020. While the additional direction and guidance from the council could further assist agencies with the implementation of these practices, federal agencies currently have guidance to assist with managing their ICT supply chain risks. Specifically, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) issued ICT SCRM-specific guidance in 2015 and OMB has required agencies to implement ICT SCRM since 2016. Until agencies implement all of the foundational ICT SCRM practices, they will be limited in their ability to address supply chain risks across their organizations effectively. Federal agencies rely extensively on ICT products and services (e.g., computing systems, software, and networks) to carry out their operations. However, agencies face numerous ICT supply chain risks, including threats posed by counterfeiters who may exploit vulnerabilities in the supply chain and, thus, compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of an organization's systems and the information they contain. For example, in September 2019, the Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency reported that federal agencies faced approximately 180 different ICT supply chain-related threats. To address threats such as these, agencies must make risk-based ICT supply chain decisions about how to secure their systems. GAO was asked to conduct a review of federal agencies' ICT SCRM practices. The specific objective was to determine the extent to which federal agencies have implemented foundational ICT SCRM practices. To do so, GAO identified seven practices from NIST guidance that are foundational for an organization-wide approach to ICT SCRM and compared them to policies, procedures, and other documentation from the 23 civilian Chief Financial Officers Act agencies. This is a public version of a sensitive report that GAO issued in October 2020. Information that agencies deemed sensitive was omitted and GAO substituted numeric identifiers that were randomly assigned for the names of the agencies due to sensitivity concerns. The foundational practices comprising ICT SCRM are: establishing executive oversight of ICT activities, including designating responsibility for leading agency-wide SCRM activities; developing an agency-wide ICT SCRM strategy for providing the organizational context in which risk-based decisions will be made; establishing an approach to identify and document agency ICT supply chain(s); establishing a process to conduct agency-wide assessments of ICT supply chain risks that identify, aggregate, and prioritize ICT supply chain risks that are present across the organization; establishing a process to conduct a SCRM review of a potential supplier that may include reviews of the processes used by suppliers to design, develop, test, implement, verify, deliver, and support ICT products and services; developing organizational ICT SCRM requirements for suppliers to ensure that suppliers are adequately addressing risks associated with ICT products and services; and developing organizational procedures to detect counterfeit and compromised ICT products prior to their deployment. GAO also interviewed relevant agency officials. In the sensitive report, GAO made a total of 145 recommendations to the 23 agencies to fully implement foundational practices in their organization-wide approaches to ICT SCRM. Of the 23 agencies, 17 agreed with all of the recommendations made to them; two agencies agreed with most, but not all of the recommendations; one agency disagreed with all of the recommendations; two agencies neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations, but stated they would address them; and one agency had no comments. GAO continues to believe that all of the recommendations are warranted, as discussed in the sensitive report. For more information, contact Carol C. Harris at (202) 512-4456 or harrisCC@gao.gov.
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