Residents make noise with FAA over flight paths

Marit Barton/Special to the Town Crier
An FAA meeting on jet noise drew crowds in MV.

Los Altos resident Donald Gardner awoke at 5:55 a.m. July 1 to the roaring sound of a cargo plane – one of at least half a dozen, by his count, that are flying between midnight and 6 a.m. despite a Federal Aviation Administration assertion to the contrary.

The overnight planes are just one aspect of the overarching airplane noise problem plaguing residents day and night from South San Francisco to Los Altos down to Capitola.

An FAA change in flight patterns last year, part of its NextGen plan to increase safety and route efficiency, resulted in planes to San Francisco International Airport taking direct paths over populated areas and flying at lower altitudes. An increased concentration of planes has resulted in local flyovers that residents like Gardner are experiencing every two to three minutes during the day.

The airplane noise has prompted residents to make noise, and the FAA is listening. An overflow crowd of approximately 750 residents attended a June 29 hearing on the matter at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts. It was the third and final public input meeting held in the past month with FAA and local officials.

The 12-member Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals, formed by U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Sam Farr and Jackie Speier, heard testimony from FAA regional administrator Glen Martin as well as representatives of four anti-noise groups and more than 100 individual speakers.

The committee, led by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, comprises councilmembers and county supervisors from each of the affected areas.

“Many of the solutions are fairly straightforward,” Simitian said after the June 29 meeting.

His committee is charged with reviewing the FAA’s and residents’ proposed solutions and making recommendations to the U.S. Congress.

“Having badly misstepped once (with NextGen), the FAA doesn’t want to misstep again,” Simitian said. “Before it goes forward, the FAA wants community support.”

The next step involves committee members taking the recent public and FAA input and then making recommendations. The committee has scheduled two meetings – Friday and July 22 – to do just that. Simitian said he hopes to have the recommendations by early fall.

Los Altos Hills Councilman Gary Waldeck is one of the principal committee members, while Los Altos Councilman Jean Mordo is among the 12-member alternate group.

Challenges ahead

The committee’s challenge will be reaching consensus on the best solutions, which at this point vary significantly. Two anti-noise groups, Quiet Skies NorCal and Quiet Skies MidPen, both assert that the other’s proposed solutions would transfer the noise problem to other communities.

NorCal’s Ben Shelef recommended the “simple solution” – one he claims is endorsed by the FAA – of reverting to the flight path prior to the NextGen change in March 2015. Planes previously flew what is referred to as the BIGSUR route, west of the current SERFR flight path.

Shelef reasoned that the previous route did not generate nearly the number of complaints, so why not “move it back to where it was?”

But Gardner, allied with the Los Altos-represented Quiet Skies MidPen, said the NorCal proposal would improve Shelef’s Saratoga area but make matters worse for others, because it addresses neither lower altitudes nor concentration of planes.

Gardner said statistics show that gradual changes played a role in the impacts felt today, not just “flipping the switch” on routes in 2015. He noted increases in numbers and concentrations of airplanes, and lowered altitudes, that can be traced back to 2010.

Statistics collected from SFO reveal a 65 percent increase in concentrated flight arrivals over the “Menlo Waypoint” – flights over Los Altos and Palo Alto – from 1,705 planes in September 2010 to 2,630 in September 2015. Average altitude has dropped 665 feet from 4,978 in September 2010 to 4,313 in April 2016.

Total SFO arrivals rose from 3,885 in September 2010 to 5,646 in April 2016. The number of individuals filing complaints to SFO averaged approximately 49 per month in 2013, a figure that increased to 1,913 during April 2016. Gardner estimated approximately 250,000 complaints per month overall.

Seeking solutions

In response to the public outcry, FAA officials made a “feasibility list” of proposed solutions. That list doesn’t sit well with some activists, who claim viable ones aren’t included while others are wrongly deemed “infeasible.”

Los Altos resident Tami Mulcahy, who testified at the June 29 meeting, said the FAA must adopt noise metrics that “reflect the true impact of noise on the ground.” The FAA’s NextGen analysis deemed the noise “not significant.”

“There should be limits on traffic capacity and noise, just like there are capacity and pollution limits in other industries,” she said. “Just because limits don’t exist in the aviation industry doesn’t make it right to take advantage of the gaping need for regulation.”

Mulcahy added that solutions “must not make winners and losers.”

“There should be no such monster as a sacrificial noise corridor,” she said to loud applause from the audience.

Solving the problem for everyone, Gardner indicated, would involve moving flights from the north back over the San Francisco Bay, rerouting night flights, raising the altitudes of the planes and decreasing concentration by adding more routes.

Gardner, an electrical engineer, also proposed requiring installation of vortex generators on U.S. airliners to mitigate the irritating, high-pitched sound plaguing some older planes. He said the costs would be minimal, and some European airlines, such as Germany’s Lufthansa, have already installed them.

“We’ve made huge progress over the last four to six weeks,” Gardner said. “(The FAA) is being cooperative at this point. They’re at the table and they’re really looking at this.”

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