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FAA offers 'disappointing' response to official's letter about airplane noise


Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
A plane flies overhead in Mountain View. Some residents in the area have complained that a changing flight path has increased the level of jet noise.

A difference in what was promised versus considered could mean an unexpected outcome in the level of airplane noise over local communities.

Los Altos Hills City Councilman Gary Waldeck told Federal Aviation Administration officials in a Dec. 14 letter that he cast a difference-making vote on moving the SERFR flight path to the BIG SUR track based on nine criteria he believed the agency agreed to. Waldeck was a member of the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals, a group representing local communities affected by the sudden spike in airplane noise when the FAA changed flight paths in March 2015 under a NextGen flight efficiency program. The paths involve planes crossing over Los Altos and other local areas as they fly into San Francisco International Airport.

FAA officials responded in a Jan. 29 letter that key recommendations in the 2016 agreement were ultimately subject to the agency’s own “design criteria and safety/operational requirements.”

“I think it means that the FAA will do whatever they choose to do,” Waldeck said last week. “My vote was predicated on the assumption that all nine of the validating criteria were possible and would be used. That they may pick and choose the elements that best suit their needs doesn’t change that. ... I am disappointed by their response.”

The SERFR flight path move was the most controversial of more than 100 recommendations FAA and local officials agreed to. Proponents contended that the initial move in 2015 from the BIG SUR flight path prompted the noise complaints, so reverting to the original path would solve the problem. Opponents noted that the move back to BIG SUR would not be the same and would, in fact, serve to “move” the airplane noise to other communities because the NextGen program requires planes to fly at lower altitudes and at greater concentrations.

In his letter to FAA administrator Michael P. Huerta, Waldeck cited two of the nine criteria he agreed to that the agency has since deemed infeasible: restoring flight altitudes over a Palo Alto/Menlo Park waypoint (called the MENLO waypoint) to 5,000 feet or higher, and designing the new route with altitudes at least as high as the previous BIG SUR route along the entire route.

The FAA reply, signed by administrator Jodi S. McCarthy, said the Phase 2 report categorized the flight path move and its accompanying nine criteria as “Feasible And Could Be Implemented In The Long Term. … As noted in the Phase 2 report, … the FAA is willing to consider the nine criteria that the Select Committee has identified and recommended. However, the design of the new procedure is ultimately subject to the FAA’s design criteria and safety/operational requirements.”

FAA readies new route

The FAA is scheduled to implement a SERFR 3 flight path arrival this month. Supporters 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 using their engines to reach lower altitudes instead of gliding in. Those concerned about BIG SUR suggest waiting on that implementation before assessing the noise mitigation effectiveness of SERFR 3.

“The FAA remains committed to addressing community concerns and working collaboratively with all stakeholders as it seeks to improve the safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System,” McCarthy said.

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