Over the last years, residents from different cities in Canada living near an airport have filed complaints about the noise caused by take-offs and landings of aircraft.1 With the growth of the aviation industry, the number of such complaints is likely to increase. Indeed, the projections for air traffic are evaluated to increase from 3.5 billion passengers in 2015 to 7.4 billion by 2034.2 Airports are expanding, new air routes are being created while existing routes are getting busier. 1397 airlines now serve 3864 airports worldwide through a route network of several million kms.3 Air transport has never been so accessible.

Noise is more than ever before a significant concern for the aviation industry. Aircraft noise is the subject of many policies illustrating the importance given to this significant aspect of aviation. Yet, aircraft are 50% quieter today than they were ten years ago and it is estimated that each new generation of aircraft will be at least 15% quieter than that generation of aircraft it replaces.4

This article will briefly go over the applicable international noise standards as well as the corresponding regulatory regimes in Canada and in the United States. Before we begin though, let’s first address what is meant by “aircraft noise”.

1. What is Aircraft Noise?

Noise is a type of environmental pollution. “Noise pollution” itself is characterized as a “loud or unpleasant noise that is caused by automobiles, airplanes, etc., and that is harmful or annoying to the people who can hear it.”5 In the case of aircraft noise, it mostly impacts the communities living within the vicinity of an airport.6 Exposure to excessive noise can have adverse effects on one’s health, such as an increase of stress level, sleep disturbance and, more seriously, high blood pressure.7

Aircraft generates noise from two main sources: their engines and aerodynamics, which is the sound caused by the flow of air during a flight.8 But when does a mere sound become a noise? “Noise” can be defined as a “loud or unpleasant sound therefore any sound that is undesired or interferes with one’s hearing.”9

Thus, regulating and addressing issues relating to airport noise is a challenge as noise is primarily a matter of individual perception: what is considered disturbing for one person may not be disturbing at all for another one. Yet, sound is measured objectively in decibels. For example, a normal conversation is rated at 60 decibels (db) whereas noise from an Airbus A380 at take off (much louder) is at 85 db and an ambulance siren is at 120 db. In an attempt to address this noise impact, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aircraft noise standards use the “effective perceived noise level” (EPNdb) to evaluate the subjective effects of aircraft noise on human beings and set the maximum noise emissions levels. In simple terms, this metric is a measure of human annoyance to aircraft noise.

2. International Civil Aviation Organization Aircraft Noise Standards

First off, let’s contemplate the mandate of ICAO. Interesting fact, the headquarters of this important organization are located in Montreal. This United Nations (UN) specialized agency’s mandate is to manage the administration and governance of the Convention on International Civil Aviation which is referred as the Chicago Convention.10 This Convention consists of a set of aircraft standards concerning notably aircraft noise which are embedded specifically into Annex 16 of the Convention. Aircraft are classified in categories, known as Chapters, which are determined according to their year of design, type and weight. For each type and for each corresponding weight of aircraft, a maximum noise emission level is set (expressed in units of EPNdb). These noise emission levels are calculated on the basis of the following criteria: level, frequency, distribution and variation over time of aircraft noise.11 Basically, for the same category of aircraft, the more recent and light it is, the quieter the aircraft will be. ICAO adopted its first aircraft noise standard in 1972 for certain aircraft with a type certificate12 submitted before 6 October 1977 and it was included in Chapter 2 of the Annex 16 of the Chicago Convention and thereafter referred to as the “Chapter 2 Standard”. The Boeing 727 and the Douglas DC-9 are examples of aircraft covered by Chapter 2. Today, with the exception of smaller jets, Chapter 2 aircraft are only allowed in certain developing countries.13 At the beginning of the 2000’s, a new Chapter 4 was adopted under the auspices of ICAO, with more stringent noise standards for aircraft with type certificates submitted on or after 1 January 2006. In 2014, ICAO adopted a new standard that will result in a reduction of 7 EPNdB compared to the current Chapter 4 Standard.14 This new standard will apply from 2018. The current requirements are therefore increasingly stringent due to the sophistication of technologies and the increase of aircraft performance.

In addition to the noise standards mentioned above, in 2001, ICAO adopted the so-called “balanced approach” with a view to assisting airports from around the world in developing noise reduction measures, while at the same time minimizing the negative impacts on traffic and on airline fleets. This approach calls for the identification of noise problems to subsequently analyze various measures that could be put in place to reduce the noise level. This approach rests on four main pillars to be used in the most cost-effective and proportionate manner:15 (i) reduction at source,16 (ii) land-use planning and management, (iii) noise abatement operational procedures and, finally, as a last resort, (iv) operating restrictions like noise quotas or flight restrictions. Member States17 will therefore implement regulations in their local civil aviation operations to comply with those global norms.18

3. Aircraft Noise Regulation in Canada and the United States

Both Canada and the U.S. have their own national legislation on aircraft noise, mostly based on ICAO standards discussed above. Both countries adopted in substance the balanced approach to noise management discussed above.19

a. Canada

Under the authority of the Aeronautics Act20 the Canadian Federal Government has adopted the Canadian Aviation Regulations (CARs),21 which is in essence a complete coderegulating the operations of aircraft and airports across the country. Those regulations and standards provide the regulatory requirements concerning aircraft noise. Such regulations include procedures regarding the arrival and departure of aircraft, noise preferential routes or engine ground running and are designed to minimize the noise impact.22 For example, under the CARs, some Canadian airports have noise-restricted runways where aircraft operators of subsonic turbo-jet aeroplanes of a certain maximum take-off weight cannot operate, unless they meet certain criteria.23 Also, aircraft must obtain a Certificate of Noise Compliance to be allowed to operate in Canada.24

The CARs are overseen and enforced by Transport Canada. Penalties, per violation, for violating the CARs can reach $5,000 for an individual and $25,000 for a company.25 Transport Canada also participates in the development of land adjacent to airports. In this regard, the agency provides a system to measure the noise in the vicinity of airports. This system takes into account, amongst other things, the loudness, frequency, duration and time of occurrence to recommend the implantation of a new residential development or not.26 Additionally, the main airports in the country have operational restrictions concerning the traffic of airplanes during night-time hours.27

b. United States

In the United States, aviation is regulated on one hand by the Department of Transportation (“DOT”), the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”), an agency of the DOT, and on the other hand, by the Transportation Security Administration (“TSA”) and Custom and Border Protection (“CBP”), which are both agencies of the Department of Homeland Security. The FAA regulates, amongst others, the air safety, the certification of aircraft and airports as well as airport development and air traffic management. It acts as the aircraft noise regulatory body in the United States.

In 1990, the US Congress enacted the Airport Noise and Capacity Act (“ANCA”) that provided the FAA regulations with a prevailing status over local and municipal regulations relating to airport noise. Aircraft noise is regulated through standards which are applied to aircraft depending on their characteristics. Aircraft are classified into “stages” which determine the maximum noise level requirements they will have to meet.28 Therefore, each aircraft that is certified to operate in the U.S. needs to comply with those requirements. The regulation in place follows the ICAO standards. The FAA is anticipating putting in place the most stringent noise standard recently adopted by ICAO29 by the end of 2017, also referred to in the U.S. as Stage 5.30


Noise management is a very complex matter with many variables. Air traffic has become a fundamental component of the economy, and communities from around the world want their local air traffic to grow. Passengers want shorter flights, air carriers want easier access to airports and fewer route limitations, and they seek to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. At the same time, there is growing awareness and mobilization on the part of citizens, and several actions or class actions in Canada and in the United States for nuisance or “neighbourhood disturbance” have been initiated over the last few years.31 However, airports in the U.S. and in Canada are making real efforts32 to take into account the noise associated with their operations and there is no doubt that the ICAO balanced approach and the ever quieter aircraft types are helping a lot. Efforts are being made at various levels to balance the conflicting interests at stake, which includes minimizing the impacts on neighboring communities.