2019-12-20 Opinion: Bay Area must combat dangerous effects of airport noise

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The Mercury News, Opinion section
By: Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, represents the 14th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
December 20, 2019

People can no longer even talk without being bombarded by ear-shattering decibels from airplanes

It’s easy to be dismissive of airport noise as a serious problem. After all, electing to live near an airport involves tradeoffs. But over the last 16 years, the number of flights at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) has increased by 33 percent, to the point that people are no longer able to sleep, sit outside in their backyards, have conversations, or even think straight without being bombarded by ear-shattering and ground-shaking decibels from the whine of airplane engines.

The incomprehensible shift of some flights into more concentrated paths over San Francisco and the Peninsula instead of the ocean means that the intensity of overflights is magnified. Some residents are reporting flights every 90 seconds. The horror stories that constituents regularly share with me include constant sleepless nights and homes rattling and shaking as though being hit by small earthquakes. Even opening a window for fresh air is no longer an option for some people in the region.

What’s even more frustrating is the fact that the FAA’s efforts to mitigate this health and environmental threat have done nothing to improve the problem. And efforts by residents to engage with the FAA have been met with nothing but roadblocks and opacity. The NextGen Performance Based Navigation was initially lauded for its ability to reduce flight time, fuel, and emissions, but it soon became clear that the NextGen process had not adequately considered the dramatic impact on residents below the new flight paths. After attempting to work with the FAA to no avail, I decided to take matters into my own hands and introduced eight bills to combat airport noise.

My legislation gives airports the option to impose nighttime curfews, addressing the issue of sleep deprivation and the fact that there are no federal restrictions on flying times. I defy anyone to witness the sheer exhaustion shadowing the eyes of a mother cradling her newborn baby who paid thousands of dollars to install double pane windows, only to find out it wasn’t enough to fully abate the noise, and sit and do nothing.

The adverse effects of sleep deprivation on a person’s mental and physical health are well-documented. According to a July 2017 article in the journal Noise and Health, “Aircraft noise is one, if not the most detrimental environmental effect of aviation. It can cause community annoyance, disrupt sleep, adversely affect academic performance of children, and could increase the risk for cardiovascular disease of people living in the vicinity of airports.”

Additionally, the legislation ensures that public agencies will be accountable to the public. It requires the FAA to respond to Members of Congress, local officials, and the impacted community. It also allows for a critically needed Aviation Roundtable Technical Representative to fully participate in FAA procedure design processes, establishes a program to expand SFO’s limited noise insulation programs to insulate many more homes around San Francisco International Airport, and allows for a state cause of action to challenge airport ground-based noise.

Obviously noise will always be a concern for residents near an airport, but that doesn’t mean that the problem should go ignored. This also isn’t solely about noise mitigation; it’s about a larger issue of the government brushing off people’s concerns as trivial and dismissing their suggestions and feedback out of hand. Governmental processes frequently lack transparency and too often information is presented to the public buried in bureaucratic jargon. It should not require five years, three members of Congress, and the outcry of thousands of constituents for a public agency to take any sort of meaningful action.

My legislation directly addresses these issues and more. It is my sincere hope that the FAA, now under new leadership, will do better than it has in previous years in its duty to be responsive and respectful of people’s needs. But no matter their response, I can assure everyone that I will not stop working on this issue until we restore some of the peace and quiet, not to mention peace of mind, that San Francisco and Peninsula residents need and deserve.

Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, represents the 14th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.


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