Saturday, May 24, 2014

Atlantic City International Airport (KACY), New Jersey: Mother and autistic son complain about aircraft noise

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — The lights usually are kept low or turned off at Elaine and Sean Mack’s home at 311 Zenia Ave. The blinds are not only closed, but also taped shut to prevent sunlight from shining in.

When the house was built nine years ago, extra insulation and what were supposed to be soundproof windows were installed to create a tranquil environment for Sean.

“This was his sanctuary. This is where it was nice and quiet,” Elaine Mack explained of her 39-year-old son, whose autism makes him ultra-sensitive to noise and light.

But the Macks say their serenity was shattered about six months ago by the roar of jets flying low over their Galloway Township home while landing and taking off at the nearby Atlantic City International Airport. They were used to planes occasionally passing overhead, but now they describe the flights as a constant barrage of noise.

“It’s over and over,” Sean Mack said.

He insists he is being traumatized by military fighter jets. Although the military denies that the Macks’ home is within its flight pattern, Sean said there is no mistaking the types of planes that are to blame for the noise.

“It’s obvious that they’re military planes,” he said. “They’re so loud.”

F-16s flown by the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing are based at Atlantic City International. Sleek, loud and fast, the fighter jets are a key part of the military’s protection of U.S. airspace on the East Coast following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Chief Warrant Officer Patrick Daugherty, a spokesman for the Air National Guard, said the 177th has reviewed the Macks’ complaints and concluded that its jets aren’t responsible for any noise bothering the family.

“Her home is not in our flight pattern,” Daugherty said of Elaine Mack. “I am quite certain that the disturbance she and her family are enduring is not the result of fighter jets.”

The Macks live about 1.5 miles from the airport. In addition to the fighter planes, Atlantic City International is also used by commercial and corporate jets.

The South Jersey Transportation Authority, the state agency that owns the airport, said it has been in contact with Elaine Mack for several months about her son. However, the authority said the Macks’ home “is not located within the noise contours of the airport.”

“We have also checked with the (air traffic control) tower and they confirmed that there are no flight paths over her home and that flight paths have not changed within the past couple of years,” the authority said in a statement released Friday.

The authority added that it continues to work with Elaine Mack and has encouraged her to call the airport whenever she has a noise complaint. Those complaints will help the authority identify any aircraft that may not comply with the airport’s noise requirements, the agency said.

Elaine Mack, though, said no one seems willing to listen to her. She has reached out to the airport, the military and government officials in hopes of solving the problem. She admits her request is a big one: She wants the jet noise to stop so that her son can live in peace.

“I think it’s inhumane to have a human being suffering,” she said. “He doesn’t need to have airplanes flying by constantly. If they could only adjust the flight path in another direction.”

Sean wrote a lengthy email to a military official to complain that the Macks were being ignored. In it, he questioned whether the military was being truthful in its statements that the fighter jets don’t pass over their house.

“Now you are even going so far as to tell us that you aren’t flying over us? So I take it Santa Claus is the one flying the planes then?” Sean wrote derisively.

Daugherty, while reiterating the military’s position that its jets aren’t to blame, also disputed the Macks’ contention that the flights have become constant. He said the 177th has not been flying more frequently in recent months. He also said that modifications made to the F-16s within the past year or two have made them quieter.

“I can say with a degree of certainty that the noise is not a result of the 177th Fighter Wing,” Daugherty stated.

Frustrated with the military and airport officials, Elaine Mack has been seeking help from the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd. LoBiondo, whose legislative district includes Atlantic City International, also chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee.

Jason Galanes, LoBiondo’s spokesman, confirmed that the congressman’s office is looking into the matter, but said privacy laws prevented him from making further comment. The FAA, meanwhile, has promised to get back to the Macks after investigating their complaints.

Elaine Mack, 75, is a retired FAA administrative assistant. She said she never really had an interest in aviation — even as an FAA employee — until the jet noise became louder and louder over her home.

Mack, a widow, is in charge of her son’s care. In addition to autism, he has been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, scoliosis and other ailments that have left him disabled and in severe pain. Mack hopes she will someday find a therapist who specializes in her son’s disorders.

Although Sean sees doctors on a regular basis, he is in so much pain that it is difficult for him to leave the house, his mother explained. He has a scraggly beard and long and disheveled hair — a result of not being able to visit a barber because of his intense pain.

Sean was diagnosed with autism when he was 18 years old, during his first year at Montclair State University. Difficulties with his concentration and memory led him to drop out at Montclair. He later attended two other colleges, but also left those schools when his disabilities overwhelmed him, he said.

Elaine Mack still proudly displays the plaques and trophies that were awarded to Sean for his academic achievements as a youngster and as an Atlantic County high school student. Among them, he was a distinguished and congressional scholar at Mainland High School in the 1990s.

But these days, he remains sheltered inside his Zenia Avenue home. The lights are turned off and the blinds are drawn to alleviate the headaches caused by his sensitivity to light. He said the aircraft noise has greatly added to his anxiety.

“No person should have to put up with that noise,” he said. “I believe my freedom is being robbed.”

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