2016-08-17: Atherton: Angry crowd rips Surf Air at town hall meeting

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The Mercury News
By John Orr
PUBLISHED: August 17, 2016 at 2:54 pm

The pavilion at Atherton’s Holbrook-Palmer Park was filled to overflowing on Tuesday night, as 185 people showed up to talk about noise from Surf Air airplanes flying out of San Carlos Airport. The third meeting on the topic, it was the largest crowd to date, according to City Council member Rick DeGolia.

Many were angry about Surf Air, which began operations in 2013 with a few flights per day from San Carlos to Los Angeles and back. It has expanded to 22 outgoing and 22 incoming flights a day, using noisy Pilatus PC-12 turboprop airplanes.

There have been thousands of complaints, citing annoyances such as ruined phone calls, woken babies (and adults) and glassware shaking on shelves caused by low-flying aircraft.

During the public comment part of the meeting, some speakers said they call to complain about the noise several times a day. Gretchen Kelly, San Mateo County airports manager, confirmed that her department, which used to get very few complaint calls, has been averaging 85 a day recently.

San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley, host of the meeting, told the crowd that when Surf Air began operations, the county was surprised, and asked the Federal Aviation Administration, “How did we end up with a commercial airline in what had been a general aviation airport?”

The county was told, Horsley said, that not only were there no regulations stopping Surf Air from operating out of San Carlos Airport, but that there are federal regulations that make it so the county can’t stop Surf Air, at least not while it is receiving federal transportation grant money.

The county has already tried a number of schemes to slow Surf Air, such as reducing the amount of parking available. Talks and studies are underway, but, Horsley said, “Government is like a cruise ship — no, it’s like a giant barge. It moves slowly and it’s hard to make a turn.”

Horsley said that the county had asked Surf Air to cap its number of flights per day, but had been refused. He said that the county was continuing to study the problem, and that the reports are expected before the Board of Supervisors in October.

Surf Air did agree to use a different flight path when possible for landings, said Horsley, using visual flight rules (VFR) to swing out over San Francisco Bay, starting at Moffett Field, when possible. If visibility is reduced in any way, however, the planes take their original GPS-guided path over Menlo Park, Atherton, North Fair Oaks and Redwood City. The airline has used VFR for about 67 percent of its landings since beginning trial use of the path, Horsley said.

One of the speakers from the crowd noted that the VFR change only affects incoming flights. Outgoing flights all go over the same areas as before.

A few speakers said they were from Sunnyvale, which gets a lot more noise from the Surf Air planes when they use the VFR approach.

“What gave you the right to dump your trash in your neighbor’s yard?” said one Sunnyvale resident.

Atherton Mayor Elizabeth Lewis also spoke to the crowd, noting that Surf Air executives, including CEO Jeff Potter, have come to some of the meetings of the working group of county and municipal leaders to discuss the issue, but that even as they attended the sessions, they continued to grow the numbers of flights.

Potter and other Surf Air executives were on hand, and Potter said the company is committed to continuing to meet to discuss the issue, but that they all had to leave by 7:30 p.m., because they hadn’t realized the meeting would go so late, and had scheduled a business flight for that evening.

“Don’t you own the airline?” someone in the crowd shouted. “Can’t you just have the flight wait?”

“It doesn’t work that way,” said Potter, shouting over hoots and jeers.

Before leaving, the Surf Air execs heard an audience member say that some of the Surf Air pilots seemed to know how to make the airplanes quieter, because some seemed louder than others. Jim Sullivan, Surf Air senior vice president for operations, responded that they would need to know the times and locations of those quieter flights, to study the situation, and was largely greeted by hoots of derision and disbelief.

The noise made by the airplanes has been studied in various ways, including by an unnamed Google executive who set up a sound meter in his front yard, said Joe Stratton, a neighbor of that Google exec and a member of the group Calm the Skies. Stratton brought in a device before the meeting and plugged it into the sound system to play the sound of a Surf Air plane flying over that yard.

More than 40 members of the public spoke at the meeting. Lewis told the crowd that they would be restricted to two minutes each, but many spoke longer.

Several speakers indicated they had some sympathy for Surf Air and its business model, but questioned its practices.

“How can the desires of nine people (the number of passengers Surf Air planes can carry) mean more than the lives of the 150,000 people they are disturbing?”

Adam Ullman, of Quiet the Skies, said he had sued the county in small claims court over the Surf Air noise, and won. The county is appealing that case, Horsley said, because it had no jurisdiction regarding Surf Air flights.

“They are suing the wrong people,” Horsley said.

Ullman told the crowd they should all file such suits.

“It would be a death of a thousand cuts,” Ullman said, to enthusiastic applause.

Another speaker was John Warrace, of Menlo Park, who complained about the noise, then suggested that maybe sometime a bunch of cars could surround the airport and all have mechanical troubles at the same time, to block access for Surf Air pilots and passengers. That idea drew general applause.

Other speakers included general aviation pilots who urged the crowd to be careful, and not follow the example of Santa Monica Airport, where the community has waged a campaign to shut it down, which it may be forced to do by 2023.

There is an increasing shortage of pilots, said one speaker, and general aviation airports are needed to help pilots get the hours they need to get jobs in commercial aviation.

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