Before Eduardo Arias purchased his Los Altos Hills home in 1996, he checked local flight paths, just as he had before buying each of his prior homes. At the time, he noted, airplanes passed by approximately every three to four hours. Starting in 2014, when the Federal Aviation Administration deployed the Next Generation Air Transportation System, however, the frequency of buzzing, humming and rumbling overhead skyrocketed to every two or three minutes.
On July 15 of this year alone, Arias filed 23 reports about the noise via an app specific to San Francisco International Airport. His reports were among 3,777 logged that day, he said.
“I will continue to report flights overhead because I think it’s a good thing to do, but I don’t have any faith in it,” Arias said. “My wife looks at me and says, ‘You’re doing this again?’ Yes, I’m doing it again. I can’t stop.”
Arias isn’t alone in his frustration. Last week, he was among a few hundred Bay Area residents who tuned into virtual workshop sessions hosted by the FAA. Panelists, including reps from the FAA; the San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland airports; and the airlines that frequent them, presented information about current local flight paths as well as updates on resident-backed proposals to alter some of them, including SERFR, a controversial arrival route, or “procedure,” to SFO from the south.
Over and over again, the workshop panelists emphasized safety as the primary reason flight paths cannot be changed; the current procedures are based on factors including terrain, the presence of military air zones, weather, runway layout and the close proximity of the three airports, they said.
Several audience members’ questions and comments, as read by moderator Raquel Girvin, FAA Western-Pacific regional administrator, suggested some residents don’t buy the safety mantra.
“We hear the FAA use ‘safety’ every time they don’t want to do something that we ask,” Girvin read. “That feels like something you say when you don’t want to make a change.”
Girvin responded to the comment herself before soliciting input from the other panelists.
“You will always hear the FAA talk about safety being our No. 1 priority,” she said. “That is absolutely our mandate, and so we are very proud of the safety record that we have.”
Paul Harrison of Alaska Airlines emphasized the complexity of synchronizing so many moving parts simultaneously.
“I can assure you that when it’s all said and done, nobody’s happy,” Harrison said. “And that’s just the way it is. Airlines look for efficiency, and we don’t always get what we want. Air traffic controllers like to have good separation in flows that work perfectly. They don’t always get what they want. And the community is very interested in noise, and we get that, but you don’t always get what you want either. Everybody is doing the best they can.”
The stated purpose of the Next Generation Air Transportation System was to modernize infrastructure, technology and services and thus make air travel safer and more efficient. But some Bay Area residents, for whom the occasional overhead flight may have provoked a momentary skyward glance in the past, protested when traffic shifted to routes over their homes and became a constant distraction.
Informal groups such as Sky Posse Los Altos, Quiet Skies Los Altos Hills and Quiet Skies NorCal emerged. In 2016, U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Sam Farr and Jackie Speier of California recruited 12 Bay Area elected officials from Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties to join the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals. The roster included Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian and Gary Waldeck, Los Altos Hills’ vice mayor at the time. Jean Mordo, then a Los Altos council member, served as an alternate.
In a November 2016 report, the committee submitted its recommendations: Planes should fly at higher altitudes and do so above fewer people, avoid noisy flight maneuvers and implement noise-reducing retrofits when possible.
One of the most important recommendations, Simitian wrote in the report, involves temporarily altering the SERFR procedure so it mirrors a ground track to the west formerly used for a procedure known as BSR (or Big Sur). Currently, SERFR exits the Monterey Bay over Capitola before continuing over Los Altos Hills, Los Altos, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Menlo Park and then veering northwest over the San Francisco Bay.
Eventually a new, long-term procedure should be identified, Simitian wrote.
But the inability to meet safety requirements and the full intent of the select committee’s recommendations means a new design is not feasible, according to an informational video played during last week’s workshops.
If safety criteria and technology change in the future, “we would be willing to continue to have the discussion on SERFR if a community roundtable would like to offer a new recommendation,” Girvin said.
In an email sent to the Town Crier after the meeting, Los Altos resident Tami Mulcahy expressed disappointment about the years wasted examining alternatives to SERFR.
“They touted their countless hours, lots of hard work, understanding public frustration and then basically are doing nothing,” she said. “They mentioned safety reasons and ‘criteria.’ Safety is a given priority. The question has and continues to be safety in the face of what? The answer is and continues to be efficiency.”
Girvin said the comments and questions gathered from last week’s workshops will complement the ongoing talks the FAA conducts with local roundtables, including the Santa Clara/Santa Cruz Counties Airport/Community Roundtable, or SCSC. The next SCSC roundtable is a virtual session set for 1 p.m. today. For more information, visit scscroundtable.org/meetings.