Responding to a rising volume of complaints about airplane noise, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has agreed to take a fresh look at flight paths, plane altitudes and new procedures that would bring some peace to the afflicted skies above San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.
In a letter prepared for U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Sam Farr and Jackie Speier, the federal agency has announced a new three-phased initiative that will explore a variety of possible modifications to flight speeds, altitudes and waypoint locations.
After a preliminary feasibility study in the first phase, the administration would then spend the second phase further studying any amendments and procedures "determined to be initially feasible, flyable, and operationally acceptable from a safety point of view," according to an FAA report released Monday by the three House members. In the third phase, the FAA would formally implement the revised procedures and make whatever airspace changes are deemed appropriate.
The FAA announced its initiative at a time when the number of complaints about airplane noise is skyrocketing and new citizen groups devoted to the topic are sprouting up to lobby change and, in some cases, take legal action.
For many, the problem was exacerbated by Next Generation Air Transportation System (commonly known as NextGen), an effort that the FAA began to roll out last year that standardized travel lanes for aircraft and, in doing so, required planes to share a more narrow band of airspace.
The change was particularly acute for Palo Alto, Portola Valley, Woodside, Santa Cruz and other communities that are located within the flight paths. In Palo Alto alone, the number of complaints shot up from 60 in June 2014 to 2,733 in June 2015, according to a resolution the City Council passed in August. And in Portola Valley and Woodside, hundreds of residents signed a petition last year complaining about the rising decibel levels.
In August, there were 8,770 complaints from Palo Alto, 12,967 from Santa Cruz and 15,562 from Los Gatos and 2,440 from Portola Valley, according to a report from the SFO Aircraft Noise Abatement Office.
A group, led by Portola Valley resident Dr. Tina Nguyen and Woodside resident Jim Lyons, has filed a petition challenging the FAA's analysis of the new flight plan and its impacts. Both Palo Alto and Portola Valley have also hired consultants to further analyze the airplane noise levels and consider mitigations.
Other communities, including Santa Cruz and Los Gatos, have also reported growing noise levels. The resolution adopted by Palo Alto City Council in August notes that the number of complaints from Los Gatos and Summit/Skyline increased from zero in January and February 2015 to 3,553 in June 2015.
The FAA's new initiative doesn't guarantee any changes, though it does commit the agency to further studying its flight procedures and to coordinating its findings with local stakeholders. During the second phase of the initiative, the FAA will "conduct the formal environmental and safety reviews, coordinate and seek feedback from existing and/or new community roundtables, members of affected industry, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) before moving forward with the formal amendment process."
According to the FAA's timetable, some of these analyses had already been launched in early October. This includes the analysis of raising the allowed altitude at several Bay Area flight paths, including the "MENLO" waypoint in the Menlo Park and Palo Alto area. The analysis will look at raising the altitude at this waypoint to 5,000 feet, the altitude to which the FAA had previously committed in 2000. Since the launch of NextGen, residents have complained that the altitudes in the area have fallen to between 3,500 and 4,000 feet.
As part of this initiative, the FAA will also consider moving speed adjustments to over water, rather than land; consider changes to air-traffic operations and the potential for using more "fly-friendly" runways to reduce concerns in certain locations, according to the FAA. The agency has also committed to hold community forums to engage the community about the ongoing effort to curb the noise level.
"Addressing noise concerns in a densely populated and operationally complex area like Northern California is best done in a forum (such as existing and/or new roundtables) that includes community leaders and is supported by the FAA and Bay Area Airports," the FAA report states.
Though the outcome is yet to be determined, the three California representatives lauded the FAA's action to address the complaints. In a joint press release, Eshoo called the FAA plan an "important first step."
"The FAA leadership will follow with community meetings, coordinated through our offices, to explain in detail the FAA's plan to address the noise problem being experienced in our regions," Eshoo said.
Farr also characterized the FAA initiative as a good first step and cited is as evidence that the FAA "is willing to consider the changes proposed by the community."
"For months, the commercial aircraft noise in Santa Cruz and the surrounding area has been terrible," Farr said. "From the beginning, I have told the FAA that they created this mess so it is up to them to fix it."
The initiative, he said in the statement, shows that "everyone is committed to developing some real solutions."
"I hope the FAA will continue to listen to the communities it serves and work with them to solve any problems that arise from the switch to the NextGen flight plan," he said.
Speier, whose district encompasses portions of San Francisco and San Mateo County, called that the FAA initiative a "compilation of ideas that were offered by the public regarding SFO and the FAA's recent meetings in our three congressional districts, as well as requests made by the SFO Airport Community Roundtable." Some of these ideas, she said, may be "deemed workable by the FAA and some may not."
"However, having previously been resistant to taking community suggestions, the FAA, for the first time in many years, has committed to studying ideas submitted by the affected communities," Speier said in a statement. "I am gratified that the FAA is rolling up its sleeves to come up with solutions. The health of those who live under constant bombardment of airplane noise is being seriously compromised and the FAA has a responsibility to take action to address it."