U.S. Reps. release FAA response to airplane noise

Local officials praised the recent federal decision to address the spike in airplane noise that has plagued Los Altos and other local communities since 2015.

“I’m personally delighted with the outcome,” said Los Altos Hills Mayor Gary Waldeck.

Waldeck and Los Altos City Councilman Jean Mordo were among the local representatives who served on the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals last year, which generated a long list of recommendations for mitigating airplane noise. U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Jackie Speier and Jimmy Panetta reported July 25 the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s response to those recommendations.

Of particular interest was a recommendation to move flight paths back to pre-March 2015 routes – before the FAA changed to a new arrival route into San Francisco International Airport, called SERFR, under its NextGen program to increase flight efficiency. The change, however, triggered an avalanche of noise complaints from Los Altos and Palo Alto down to Capitola.

“Communities affected by the SERFR arrival route overwhelmingly supported a return to the former Big Sur (BSR) flight track,” FAA officials noted in their report. “By contrast, communities under the former BSR flight track strongly opposed a return to the former route. … The Select Committee’s recommendation was to develop a new route as an optimized profile descent, which would enable aircraft to descend in a quieter, idle-power setting.”

Hitting the home stretch

Ben Shelef of the watchdog group Quiet Skies NorCal wrote in an email to followers that the FAA move toward a modified BSR track means that supporters are “in the home stretch.”

“We can’t translate that into a straight time estimate, … but the main takeaway is that the FAA is committed to and proceeding down the road of undoing the NextGen ground-track shift – at full government speed,” Shelef wrote.

FAA officials said they’ve developed a conceptual route, with work ahead including route design and environmental and safety reviews. Officials estimated completion of the work in 18-24 months.

Also in the works is a possible modification of Class B airspace to optimize “quieter, idle-power descents. … We also are evaluating proposals to raise altitudes of aircraft on the SERFR as well as aircraft that are vectored off the route,” the FAA report states.

The July 25 report cites concerns the FAA claims it has already addressed, which include keeping SFO arrivals over the water as much as possible, keeping SFO arrivals and departures away from noise-sensitive areas at night and assigning SFO departures unrestricted climbs so that they are as high as possible when they turn over land.

FAA officials said a proposal to raise altitudes on arrival routes into San Jose International Airport cannot be addressed until the design of the modified BSR route is complete, because the two routes interact.

The FAA’s response also includes recommendations determined not feasible from an operational and safety perspective. One is a Select Committee recommendation to raise the altitude at the Menlo Waypoint – a source of noise complaints from Palo Alto – above 5,000 feet. A call to change ways the FAA measures airplane noise – standards unchanged since 1971 – went unaddressed.

“They said it’s not in their purview,” Waldeck said. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t bring it up again.”

Positive collaboration

Overall, Waldeck was pleased with the FAA’s responses – and actions.

“It has gotten quieter,” he said. “I’ve seen changes – they’re coming across higher. The nighttime routes – the process has been largely changed.”

He also was gratified to see a change in attitude among FAA officials.

“We are no longer adversaries – we’ve become collaborators,” he said of the relationship among the agency, local representatives and the public at large. “What we did here in the Bay Area has become a model for (how the FAA works with) other areas of the country.”

“We are grateful to all of our constituents and community leaders for their hard work, including countless hours of public hearings, technical briefings and document review. This was a public, thorough and deliberative process,” Eshoo, Speier and Panetta said in a joint statement.

Eshoo and Panetta, who both represent parts of Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, have followed up on the Select Committee’s recommendation for a permanent venue in the South Bay to address aircraft noise concerns for the currently unrepresented cities in their congressional districts.

“As members of Congress who are also members of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus, we will continue to support legislative efforts in Congress to hold airlines and airports accountable to reduce aircraft noise, which has impacted so many of our constituents, and encourage the airline industry to adopt new technologies that will reduce noise,” they said in a joint statement with Speier.

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