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Public Demands and Technological Response: Austin Tobin, Leo Beranek and the Advent of Jet Travel

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Document pages: 19 pages

Abstract: As the Luddite protests in the 19th Century and resistance in the 20th Century to building nuclear power plants illustrate, technological change often generates powerful public opposition. In some instances, however, scientific strategies, joined with sustained pressure from well-placed supporters, can be used to ameliorate the worst effects of technological change - as the case described below illustrates. When Pan Am tried to introduce jet planes for travel in the US and across the Atlantic, it generated a battle that lasted more than two years. The public agency that operated all three major airports in the New York region - the Port Authority - had been designed to encourage its officials to emphasize scientifically based analysis in setting policy; and the agency s leader, Austin Tobin, had developed a strong reputation for political independence and integrity. He also had previous encounters with the airlines, described below, leading him to be suspicious of their assertion that jet planes were not unduly noisy. Therefore, to test jet noise, he recruited the nation s premier acoustical engineer, Leo Beranek, and when Beranek concluded that jets were perceived to be much louder than expected, the aircraft industry fought back, challenging the findings, appealing to federal officials, and alleging that Tobin might be corrupt. After two years of conflict, the airplane industry capitulated, and in a few years the standards developed for the New York airports were embraced by airport managers across the United States and Europe. This paper summarises the battle that ensued between the Port Authority and the airlines, leading to the development of noise limits for operations at the New York airports during the early days of jet travel.

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