EVERETT — A phony account impersonating the airport director was used to file hundreds of noise complaints, contributing to a skyrocketing number logged since the start of commercial airline service in March, Paine Field officials say.
The imposter account for airport Director Arif Ghouse was responsible for 223 noise complaints in September alone, airport spokesman Scott North said.
And during a 15-hour span on Thursday — the day the Snohomish County Airport Commission met — the fake account fired off 235 noise complaints.
The hoax came to light last month when Ghouse began receiving emails confirming that noise complaints had been successfully filed through a third-party online service.
Noise complaints can be submitted directly to Paine Field’s online portal or a designated telephone line. But the recent advent of third-party airport noise complaints has given residents another avenue to comment — with one-click efficiency.
Since March, noise complaints during some months have risen a staggering 5,000% year over year.
During August, the airport received 2,743 complaints, compared to 53 in August 2018, with four households responsible for nearly 1,100 filings.
The number of takeoffs and landings has risen in recent months compared to a four-year average.
There were 15,793 flight operations at Paine Field in August, a 20% increase over August’s four-year average, for example. That total includes 1,488 departures or arrivals of flights operated by Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, which now serve a new two-gate passenger terminal. But many noise complaints involve other aircraft, including Boeing jets being tested or delivered and the company’s massive 747 Dreamlifters, which ferry components.
The fake accounts have raised questions about the reliability of the complaint database, which is used to steer voluntary noise reduction efforts at the county-owned airport.
“I can’t say that 100% of all the data is correct,” Ghouse told the Snohomish County Airport Commission at a quarterly meeting on Thursday. The board, comprised of volunteers, advises the county executive.
“I personally have filed hundreds of complaints — from a fake account,” an annoyed Ghouse told the commission.
An online service called Airnoise offers paid subscribers the ability to fire off unlimited airport noise complaints with a single click of a device or through web application.
The San Diego-based company requires users to be at least 13 and provide current and accurate information when they set up an account.
Airnoise’s developer, Chris McCann, said Monday that “if someone created an account under a false name or otherwise provided false information in their account or their complaints, they would clearly be in violation of our terms of service and subject to a wide variety of actions by us.” McCann, a former Air Force pilot, founded Airnoise two and a half years ago.
Legitimate accounts with third-party services are also driving up Paine Field’s monthly noise-complaint tally.
In June, about a dozen households filed more than 1,300 complaints through a third-party app, accounting for the majority of complaints received that month, North said.
In September, six of 10 noise complaints filed with the airport originated with a third-party service, North said.
The ease of multiple filings — hundreds a day — appears to be behind a surge of noise complaints here and elsewhere.
The Snohomish County airport is one of many around the country, including Sea-Tac Airport, that report being inundated with complaints generated by third-party services.
The Washington Post reported last year that “officials at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport … are almost certain Airnoise is the reason complaints surged to 17,228 in August from 2,692 the previous month. In San Diego, more than 90 percent of the complaints came through third-party apps like Airnoise.”
Paine Field might be among the first to be targeted by phony accounts.
The airport uses the information it gathers from complaints to pinpoint the source of airport noise and guide noise abatement.
“We depend on good data to make good decisions,” North said.
The complaint log has been used in the past, for example, to encourage Boeing to make changes to 747 Dreamlifter approaches to the airfield, North said.
The airport, which does not have a noise curfew, operates 24 hours a day under the authority of the Federal Aviation Administration.
However, the airport encourages tenants — including Boeing, Aviation Technical Services, Alaska Airlines and United Airlines, and the general aviation community — to be mindful of surrounding communities.
“We want to be good neighbors,” North said.
The airport’s authority is limited, though. Airspace, aircraft takeoffs and landings, and approach paths are controlled by the FAA.
Flights in and out of Paine Field aren’t the only source of jet noise in the area.
As the number of inbound and outbound flights increase at Sea-Tac, one of the nation’s busiest airports, more jets are occupying the airspace.
Annual takeoffs and landings in the central Puget Sound region are expected to climb from 438,000 in 2018 to more than 800,000 by 2050, according to an ongoing Regional Aviation Baseline Study
Paine Field maintains a complaint portal and hotline on its website. Monthly reports that date back to 2008 are available online.
Commenters are asked for a name, time, date and location, and aircraft type — if known.
Third-party complaint services have upped the ante with the ability to place unlimited filings. Free versions typically allows users to file up to 30 complaints a month.
“Mad as hell and super-motivated take action? Get a button and have at it,” Airnoise advertises on its website.
Customers are charged $26 for a clicker and then pay a monthly $5 fee to log an unlimited number of complaints.
Airnoise uses publicly available air traffic tracking information “to search for aircraft near you,” the website said.
Paine Field received its first third-party complaints in March, North said.
The airport, which posts a monthly noise summary on its website, has delayed issuing September’s report while it evaluates how to report complaints made through third-party services.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, which polices the county-owned airport, has opened an investigation into whether the accounts are fraudulent, agency spokeswoman Courtney O’Keefe said.
Janice Podsada; firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3097.