Locals concerned FAA not addressing airplane noise

As Federal Aviation Administration officials move to implement adjusted flight paths this year for airplane arrivals, local officials and residents alike are concerned that airplane noise over some communities – including Los Altos – could get worse.

The result could undermine a 2016 agreement between FAA officials and local representatives to address a spike in airplane noise that has generated hundreds of thousands of complaints since a change in flight paths nearly three years ago.

The Los Altos Hills representative on the regional committee that forged the agreement said last month that the FAA is reneging on assurances that were key to committee members signing off on the most controversial of its noise mitigation recommendations.

In a Dec. 14 letter to FAA administrator Michael P. Huerta, Los Altos Hills City Councilman Gary Waldeck said he cast the deciding vote in November 2016 to move the path of flights coming into San Francisco International Airport back to its original position prior to March 2015, when the FAA implemented its NextGen initiative and triggered the increase in noise complaints.

Waldeck said he endorsed the change only with the stipulation that nine criteria be incorporated into the new route rules.

He said the FAA’s latest “Phase Two Report,” documenting its mitigation efforts, “appears to renege” on at least two of the key criteria: restoring the flight altitudes over the long-established Menlo Waypoint covering Menlo Park and Palo Alto to 5,000 feet or higher and designing the entire route with altitudes at least as high as the pre-March 2015 route.

“If I, or other members of the (Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals), had been aware of the FAA’s determination that any of these criteria were infeasible when the Select Committee voted, the initiative would not have been approved (I would have voted against),” Waldeck said of the 8-4 committee vote, which required eight votes for passage. “If the FAA’s proposed route change does not meet all nine criteria ... then it does not reflect the regional consensus and therefore should be abandoned.”

Waldeck added that he has not received a response to his letter. FAA officials could not be reached for comment.

Shift of noise?

The FAA’s Phase Two update indicates a flight path shift planned for August from the current path, SERFR, to the former one, BIG SUR. Proponents felt that simply shifting back to the pre-March 2015 BIG SUR path would solve the noise problem. But opponents contend that the BIG SUR path would not be the same under the NextGen program, created to increase flight efficiency. They point to planes flying at lower altitudes and at higher concentrations than pre-NextGen levels.

Separately, the FAA is scheduled to implement a SERFR 3 arrival next month. Supporters, such as former Mountain View resident and U.S. Navy pilot George Wylie, said SERFR 3 is a fix that will reduce jet noise significantly, because it eliminates a conflict with Class B airspace for smaller planes – a conflict that had the big planes noisily “throttling up,” as he put it, instead of gliding in. Those concerned about BIG SUR suggest waiting on that move before assessing the noise mitigation effectiveness of SERFR 3.

Meanwhile, the founder of a Los Altos residents’ activist group closely following the FAA’s moves is concerned the agency’s changes could mean more planes flying at lower altitudes over Los Altos.

Roger Heyder, founder of the group Quiet Skies Los Altos, worried that the flight path is becoming less defined, leaving too much discretion up to air traffic controllers and leading to a shift of airplane noise from some communities to others.

“It’s important that (the path) be clearly defined,” he said. “The whole thing is ill-defined right now, and that’s part of the issue. We just need to really understand how the implementation goes, because this is probably our last chance to fix it, and if it’s poorly done, then we kind of get what we get.”

Waldeck said the FAA should pursue a solution that has the backing of all of the affected communities.

“Otherwise, the FAA and our congressional representatives will find themselves facing yet another group of angry residents ... demanding fixes to the noise problems,” he said.

Grace Hase contributed to this report.

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