The following article was published on the front page of the Mercury News on August 9, 2016. It describes the situation well of the FAA routes bringing aircraft in lower, noisily buzzing homes along the way.
Flight path noise: Residents fight changes in SFO approach
SARATOGA — Ben Shelef remembers when the swarm arrived.
It was March 5, 2015. The first plane he noticed, en route to San Francisco International Airport, was an uncommon sight above the picturesque lot he had moved to in the Santa Cruz Mountains for its sense of remote solitude. “It’s a huge part of being up here,” said the mechanical engineer who works out of his home. “There was the occasional oddly vectored airplane, but it was just that, an occasional plane. Who cares?”
But then another came. And another. A rumbling Boeing 787 Dreamliner. An Airbus 320, screeching like a plummeting bomb. When he saw four sets of incoming flashing lights one night, he knew it wasn’t temporary.
That was how Shelef learned about a new flight path that the Federal Aviation Administration created when it began using satellites instead of radar to route planes more efficiently and with laser precision. Suddenly, Shelef and thousands of others throughout the Bay Area discovered they were living under new courses that brought aircraft in lower and louder. About 150 planes fly over Shelef’s home each day, and some areas can see twice that many.
The new FAA flight paths have caused an uproar in Santa Clara, San Mateo, Santa Cruz and Alameda counties, triggering a lawsuit and floods of complaints, with residents forming more than a dozen new community groups in the South Bay alone, bearing names such as Quiet Skies NorCal.
Back in June 2014, before the changes took effect, SFO got 449 complaints about noise from 73 residents. By June of this year, that had skyrocketed to 320,000 reports from 2,160 residents, the bulk in Palo Alto, Los Altos and Los Gatos.
FAA regional director Glen Martin acknowledges that the changes have had an impact. “NextGen implementation has been vastly successful across the country,” said Martin. “But that’s not to say there hasn’t been controversy in some locations on some procedures.”
The FAA maintains NextGen allows greater control in guiding airplanes into designated “Metroplex” areas, saving fuel, curbing emissions and increasing the punctuality of arrivals and departures. But some procedures have meant a break from traditional models of how planes come into and go out of these areas. For example, new arrival routes try to use descent paths optimized to minimize engine use and save fuel, but that can mean planes come in lower and not as quietly as before. In the Bay Area, that’s why most of the complaints are coming from residents at higher elevations, like Shelef, and those beneath a particularly notorious aerial “waypoint” 4,000 feet above Palo Alto — the last in a dot-to-dot connector route to the airport.For Kathryn Muir, who has lived in Montclair for 28 years, the FAA changes meant overflights so noisy they even make her walls tremble.
“It shakes so much that my artwork is literally shifting dramatically on the wall,” she said. “When this first started happening, I wasn’t sure if we were having little earthquakes or what was going on. But there’s little confusion now.”
She says the unannounced and unexpected changes aren’t fair for homeowners who weren’t previously in a flight path.
“This is not like where people bought a house next to a pig farm or a garbage dump and are now bitching about it,” she said. “We didn’t buy a home under a flight path. And we deserve to be heard and to have this changed.”
But many fear that a push for a route change won’t do anything for over-arching problems. And that’s created some tensions.
Jacqui Rice lives in the Santa Cruz Mountains community of Felton, which used to be under the flight path before it was changed. She said she was “stunned” when she attended a community meeting expecting to hear “win-win ideas” and instead heard people who are now affected clamor for relief by returning the planes to the old track.
“They yelled ‘Dump it on them!’ They said “Stick it to them!’ she said. “They’re only two miles that way, our kids play soccer together. We’re neighbors and we’re supposed to stick together.”
“The difference is they want to go back and we’re trying to look forward,” said Tom Rindfleisch, a retired Stanford University scientist who lives beneath the Palo Alto waypoint.
Rindfleisch said for three decades he had no problems with noise, but NextGen changed everything. He’s been taking sound samples and created a computer program to help analyze the data, and counts about 300 flights a day passing over Palo Alto.
“This problem is not going to go away,” he said. “We need to take the effect of aircraft farther away and what’s left, spread it around equitably.”
A key complaint has been the blitzkrieg fashion in which the planes showed up — without warning and in full force — since NextGen launched outside the Bay Area in 2012.
“What you’ve seen across the country is the same pattern,” said Kevin Terrell, who headed an effort to thwart a flight path change in Minneapolis, which he calls the only success story so far in the NextGen saga. “The FAA basically starts drawing lines in the sky, making baseline assumptions that are completely flawed about what are acceptable noise levels, and then they just ram it through and you start seeing lawsuits everywhere.”
The city of Phoenix has sued, as have residents of Portola Valley and Palo Alto. Jim Glosli, a member of Save our Skies East Bay, said that even if the FAA is within its legal rights, it didn’t do right by residents.
“That’s where the big problem lies,” said Glosli. “They may have met the letter of the law, but they were just checking off boxes without doing due diligence. This could have been a great collaborative process, but the FAA chose to hunker down and not engage with the community.”
After hearing a host of complaints, Congress members Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, Sam Farr, D-Carmel, and Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, created a committee to hear from residents and FAA officials and weigh in on options.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who is chair of the committee, said there are “legacy issues” that may have been exacerbated by NextGen, and some residents naturally want to see those addressed. “On the other hand,” he said, “folks with concerns that developed more recently want them fixed sooner rather than later, without additional delay.”
Martin of the FAA said that although they appreciate hearing residents’ concerns, he cautioned that the agency isn’t engaging with the community to undo NextGen.
“We are not looking into completely redesigning all of Bay Area air traffic from Sacramento to Carmel,” he said. “We’re not closed-minded here, but we’re not expecting this to be a continuation for more and more suggestions.”
Simitian said that since the problems “were created by the FAA, that means the FAA can fix them if the political will is there.”
“Can they make everybody happy? I don’t think so,” he said. “But can they improve things significantly? They can and they should.”
Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.
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