South Bay airplane noise: community-based solutions, but little relief

When the Federal Aviation Administration shifted a key flight path into San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in 2015, there weren’t any announcements or headlines. After all, with planes flying thousands of feet in the air, how much impact could there be from moving the route four miles downcoast?

The answer came immediately, as distressed residents from Santa Cruz to Palo Alto deluged the FAA with complaints about an abrupt rise in the intensity and amount of airplane noise over their homes.

On a city-by-city basis, the numbers were startling: In 2014, for example, the FAA received 587 complaints from Palo Alto residents, according to the SFO Noise Abatement Office. In 2015, by June – a few months after the flight path change – the FAA had received more than 5,000 complaints from city residents. 

While this problem stretches over at least three counties, it certainly seems severe in our area,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, after a number of his District Five constituents suddenly found themselves living under a revamped, more concentrated flight path with aircraft at lower altitudes.

Affected residents complained about the increased noise and pollution caused by more than 100 planes a day flying over their homes. They talked about having to wear noise-reducing headphones to get any sleep or garden in their backyards. They worried about their health, and of the potential harm to their kids. One couple fled their Palo Alto home for a rental in Carmel to escape the noise.

“Just this last weekend I heard from folks in Saratoga, Mountain View, and Menlo Park – all in a 24-hour period,” Simitian said in August 2015, after the Board, at his request, unanimously adopted a resolution urging the FAA to address airplane noise in Santa Clara County.

The South Bay’s encounter with escalating airplane noise mirrored that of communities all over the country, coinciding with a decades-long overhaul of the nation’s air traffic management system by the FAA, called Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen.

The public response to NextGen has been loud and clear, with communities across the nation forming activist groups like Quiet Skies NorCal, Plane Sense, and Fair Skies to tackle noise issues. The clamor for quiet in the South Bay gained momentum in March 2015, after the change to the southern approach flight path into SFO.

Deluged with complaints from constituents, Congressional representatives asked the FAA to compile a report on airplane noise, and convened a group of elected officials as the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals.

Simitian, the Select Committee’s chairman, brought a regional perspective: having served as a California State Legislator for 12 years representing South San Mateo County, much of Santa Clara County, and portions of Santa Cruz County before returning to the County Board, he was deeply familiar with the affected communities.

“I didn’t have to ask where Capitola or Boulder Creek or Monte Sereno or Portola Valley were. They were all places I had represented and where I had some understanding of local community concerns,” said Simitian.

“This was a real opportunity to make some progress. Having badly mis-stepped once with NextGen, the FAA wanted community support before moving forward again,” Simitian added. “The FAA acknowledged the noise problem was real; the question then was, what do we do to fix it?”

After six months of working meetings, three packed public hearings, and nearly 4,000 written and oral comments from the community, in November 2016 the Select Committee issued dozens of specific recommendations to mitigate noise.

The response from the FAA?

“We’ve not seen what I would call meaningful action,” Simitian said. “That’s obviously disheartening because of the lack of relief, but also because so many people worked so hard to produce the recommendations, including the FAA’s own staff.”

South Bay airplane noise remains a contentious issue, with some residents urging legal action against the FAA, a tactic that has been employed in other communities, including Phoenix and Newport Beach. A roundtable of cities, as well as representatives for Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties, formed in October 2018 to continue to advocate for regional solutions.

“The one thing we learned for sure is that if we aren’t push, push, pushing we’re not going to get any action from the FAA,” Simitian said.

The backstory

In response to growing air travel congestion and costly delays, in 2003 Congress established a multi-agency office to develop NextGen and move commercial air traffic management from a ground-based to a more precise satellite-based navigation system, which promised to save fuel, while allowing more planes to take off and land per hour.

A key part of NextGen system was the development and implementation of standardized “precision navigational procedures” that an aircraft can fly with minimal input from air traffic control, which were to be in place at the nation's 35 busiest airports by 2015.

Prior to NextGen, ground-based air traffic controllers dispersed flights arriving into SFO within roughly 1-mile wide pathways coming from the south, east, west, or north. As part of designing optimum routes for its “precision navigation” objective, however, the FAA concentrated approaching flights into narrow corridors, essentially creating “superhighways” that had constant, rather than intermittent, impact on neighborhoods below.

The biggest single source of complaints as a result of NextGen’s rollout at SFO was the new southern arrivals flight path, known as SERFR, which directed planes to turn inland at Capitola and concentrated traffic in a corridor over Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, and San Mateo county communities. In 2016, an average of 183 aircraft arrived each day on the SERFR flight path, representing 30 percent of the arrivals into SFO, according to the FAA.

At the same time, the FAA implemented a new NextGen procedure for arrivals. The Optimized Profile Descent (OPD) increased the number of aircraft that, under satellite control and with engines at idle, glided into a landing - like sliding down a bannister – reducing noise and fuel consumption.

However, the Bay Area – with SFO, the world’s 17th busiest airport in terms of departures and arrivals, as well as Oakland and San Jose international airports – has complex air traffic.

SFO’s arrivals are queued to land on the airport’s two runways based on their direction of approach. When aircraft need to be re-sequenced to merge with other arrivals, air traffic controllers take over guiding incoming aircraft to a landing.  Instead of an OPD glide, arrivals are directed to step down, level off, and sometimes make turns. Known as “vectoring,” the procedure causes more noise as pilots use speed brakes to slow down, and increase engine thrust to maintain altitude.

Residents in Palo Alto complained that NextGen had put them at a disadvantage, both because of the prevalence of vectoring on the SERFR route, and because arrivals coming from the south, west, and north roughly converged over the city to join the final approach into SFO.

In June 2014, before the NextGen Northern California Metroplex Plan navigation changes took effect, SFO received 449 complaints about noise from 73 residents. In June 2016, there were 317,020 complaints from 2,160 people – a 700 percent increase – with the highest number coming from Palo Alto.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (CA-Menlo Park), a founding member of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus, said of the public’s reaction.

An engaged community

In response to the outcry from frustrated and sleep-deprived residents, Eshoo, Rep. Jackie Speier (CA-San Mateo), and then-Rep. Sam Farr (CA-Santa Cruz), requested that the FAA compile a report addressing noise concerns in their communities.

In support of their efforts, Simitian successfully urged the Board of Supervisors in August 2015 to unanimously adopt a resolution calling on the FAA to mitigate aircraft noise at ground level in Santa Clara County, as well as require more robust community engagement before flight paths were changed. 

“My hope is that this resolution strengthens the hand of our Congressional representatives in dealing with the FAA,” Simitian said.

In 2016, Eshoo, Speier, and Farr convened a Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals, each appointing four members and four alternates, all locally-elected officials, to the panel. Simitian accepted Eshoo’s invitation to serve on the Committee, and was unanimously selected Chairman, leading the effort to:

  • Address aircraft noise created by the FAA’s NextGen program;
  • Review noise mitigation proposals already deemed feasible by the FAA; and,
  • Make final regional consensus-based recommendations to the members of Congress. 

South Bay residents and a dozen local activist groups like Sky Posse Palo Alto and Calm The Skies lauded the opportunity for air space redesign to reduce noise and air pollution. Still, the proposals reviewed by the Committee – which represented jurisdictions with more than 2 million people – often divided communities from Santa ​Cruz to Los Altos Hills in a tug-of-war over flight paths and waypoints (fixed points that planes must fly over at specific altitudes).

With FAA staff, the Committee held three sometimes heated community hearings in spring 2016, with 500 people attending in Santa Cruz County, and 750 in Santa Clara County, filling the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts to capacity and spilling into the lobby.

“Clearly this was an issue that motivated a lot of people,” Simitian said. “While we had wide swaths of the community that weren’t affected by airplane noise and couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, the folks who cared, cared deeply.”

The 12-member Committee, and its alternates, worked “very conscientiously over the course of six months to produce recommendations. Literally thousands of residents from the three-county area weighed in at public hearings or with letters or by email,” Simitian said.

Simitian also acknowledged FAA staff for the technical support they provided at the Committee’s three public community hearings, ten working meetings, and five technical briefings.

“The process began with considerable public skepticism about the ability and willingness of the FAA to engage in a meaningful way,” Simitian said. “The staff of the FAA was exemplary in its professionalism in trying to help identify workable solutions. The longer we worked together the more invested in the process the FAA seemed to be.”

Recommendations for quiet skies

The Select Committee’s 30-page report, released in November 2016, first set out principals underlying its recommendations to the FAA, including:

  • Minimizing aircraft noise exposure on the ground when designing procedures and providing navigational guidance to arriving aircraft, even if airline efficiency is compromised; 
  • Dispersing or avoiding aircraft noise, rather than simply “noise shifting” to other communities;
  • Including affected or potentially-affected communities as stakeholders when designing new procedures;
  • Sticking to published procedures, such as approach altitudes and paths, unless safety considerations require an exception;
  • Establishing meaningful metrics for measuring noise; and,
  • Redefining “nighttime” hours as between midnight and 6:00am, and expanded to 11:00pm to 7:00am whenever possible.

“Reducing aircraft noise at night is an urgent priority,” the report concluded. “Given the availability of airspace in the nighttime hours, there is considerable potential for aircraft to be rerouted over unpopulated or less populated areas, specifically the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean. It should be an extremely rare occurrence that a flight path is disruptive to the community.”

The Committee tackled the most challenging issue head on with its much-debated endorsement to eliminate the controversial SERFR route, and return to the historical flight path. Called BSR, the pre-NextGen flight path turned inland at the city of Santa Cruz, roughly four miles to the west of SERFR.

In concert, the Committee unanimously recommended a number of modifications to the BSR route to reduce impacts from NextGen procedures, as well as take better advantage of areas of non-residential use.

In all, the Committee made 47 consensus-based regional recommendations, broadening its original charge to review the FAA’s six sets of “feasible” actions to include suggestions that came out of the public hearings, as well as longer-term and process issues for deliberation and potential action.

“I was particularly pleased that the vast majority of the Committee’s recommendations were adopted unanimously,” Simitian said.

The Committee did not rank or prioritize its recommendations, which could be summarized as: 

  • Fly at higher altitudes;
  • Fly over locations with fewer people;
  • Avoid noisy flight maneuvers; and,
  • Implement noise reducing retrofits where possible.

“Many of the solutions are fairly straightforward, and the Committee believes the recommendations have the potential to provide real relief,” Simitian said in presenting the report to South Bay Congressional leaders. “We hope that relief arrives sooner rather than later.”

Within two weeks, Eshoo, Speier, and Farr accepted the Committee’s regional consensus-based recommendations and sent them with their support to the FAA.

“Disappointment” with FAA response

Since then, however, little has changed. The FAA has rejected a handful of the Committee’s recommendations, accepted even fewer, and continues to review the rest. 

Regarding the contentious SERFR route, the Technical Working Group – made up of representatives of the FAA, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, SFO, and airlines – met in June 2019 to continue work on a noise mitigating redesign. However, even if the FAA approves an amended route, implementation could take another 12 to 18 months.  Meanwhile, aircraft are still arriving via SERFR at lower altitudes over populated areas, and residents are still unhappy.

“When the report landed in Washington, DC, we didn’t make much in the way of progress. It’s a great disappointment,” said Simitian, who traveled to Washington to meet personally with the FAA following the conclusion of the Select Committee efforts.

“I shared with them my frustration,” said Simitian, whose dissatisfaction was echoed by other local leaders and Congressional representatives also trying press the South Bay’s case directly with the FAA.

“Candidly, when you’ve got just three members of Congress out of 435 who are pushing on an issue, they’re going to have limited impact on an agency like the FAA that looks to the administration for guidance,” Simitian said. “There’s clearly a lack of political will at the FAA.”

While the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals disbanded after delivering its report, its recommendation to create a permanent venue dedicated to regional aircraft noise mitigation came to fruition with the formation of the Santa Clara/Santa Cruz Roundtable.

In February 2019, the SC/SC Roundtable held its inaugural monthly public meeting, with representatives from 11 cities and two counties, as well as SFO and the FAA. (The SFO Airport/Community Roundtable, established in 1981, limits membership to the cities and counties of San Mateo and San Francisco.)

“I am pleased that there’s a successor committee up and running for the South Bay and Santa Cruz County,” Simitian said. “It’s essential for the community to have a way to talk to the FAA, and we need regional collaboration and resolution regarding aircraft noise

“It remains to be seen how successful they can be, but I continue to be engaged with this necessary and challenging effort,” he added. “We’re going to have to persist if there’s any real hope of meaningful action from the FAA.” 

For more information about the​ Santa Clara/Santa Cruz Roundtable, click here

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