Chicago Executive Airport mulling ways to help Wheeling, Prospect Heights residents with noise

Chicago Executive Airport could be ready to help its neighbors find some relief from airplane noise — through new flight patterns or funding soundproofing projects — just a few years after passing on a potential $50 million grant program for sound reduction.

Executive Director Jamie Abbott said the airport's board of directors has shown interest in contributing funds to allow for federal grant programs to help Wheeling and Prospect Heights residents insulate their houses and schools against airplane noise. Complaints in recent years prompted the airport — the state's third busiest behind O'Hare and Midway with nearly 80,000 takeoffs and landings last year — to be more receptive to helping residents.

“It's a board that's more proactive toward approaching that this time around,” Abbott said.

Five years ago, thousands of residents who face the brunt of airplane noise had a chance to get $50 million to help soundproof their houses. The potential grant from the Federal Aviation Administration could have helped homeowners and schools complete projects, such as insulating roofs and installing soundproof windows, to help mitigate noise from loud airplanes. Residents say the funds would have improved their quality of life, increased property values and created some local jobs.

But the money never arrived. Airport officials balked at moving forward with the five-year program, citing thin profit margins at the facility owned by Wheeling and Prospect Heights. They doubted revenue could match the $250,000 required each year from 2013 through 2017. Plus, the state would have had to pitch in $250,000 annually, not a sure thing as Illinois slogged through budget problems.

It's a decision that has left some residents upset.

“I think it's shameful that they talk about this airport as an economic engine,” said Wheeling resident Steve Neff, a member of the airport's noise committee. “How come when it comes time to put money in the community, they wouldn't do it?”

There now appears to be new momentum toward helping people get a break from the noise. The airport formed the noise committee in 2015 to improve outreach with neighbors, and there's a hotline for people to call with complaints about particularly loud airplanes.

More tangible for residents, the airport has floated the idea of putting aside money each year as matching funds for federal sound-reduction grant projects.

“I think the board is interested in looking at another program, just a scaled-down version,” Abbott said.

Last month, an airport consultant finished noise exposure maps, a step toward obtaining grant money. The maps show areas with a high concentration of airplane noise and determine regions eligible for federal soundproofing funding. To be eligible, noise maps must be updated every five years. The airport hadn't done a map since 2010, and the most recent one before that was completed in 1991.

The airport board also is trying to control noise on the ground, where it has jurisdiction. For example, pilots preparing for takeoff previously revved engines near Wolf and Hintz roads, causing noise and jet fuel smoke to permeate into nearby houses. The airport imposed restrictions after complaints from residents.

But the skies are controlled by the FAA, and a temporary program to change flight patterns during overnight hours for six months has stalled. About a year ago, airport officials announced airplanes departing between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. would soon turn northwest over an industrial district in Wheeling, instead of flying over houses directly in line with the runway.

The FAA hasn't given the go-ahead. A spokesman did not return a phone call for comment.

“It's been more involved than I initially thought to get the trigger pulled, so to speak,” Abbott said.

Ray Lang, an airport board member and Wheeling trustee, said implementing airport noise programs can take longer than residents want.

“If we can solve them, we're going to do it,” Lang said. “I fully understand it really takes a dent out of their quality of life.”

  An aircraft passes over Willow/Palatine Road in Prospect Heights before landing at Chicago Executive Airport. Joe Lewnard/
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