The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) got an earful in Redwood City on June 15, having completed a study of noise complaints from residents of San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties regarding aircraft headed to San Francisco International Airport.
About 100 residents from these three counties showed up at a Sequoia High School auditorium, many articulating their grievances. Not for the first time, and probably not for the last.
The gathering was the second of three meetings of the Select Committee On South Bay Arrivals, a group of elected officials, four from each county, and chaired by Santa Clara County Supervisor and former state legislator Joe Simitian. The first meeting was held in May in Santa Cruz and the third is scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 29 in Mountain View at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.
The committee, commissioned by local congressional representatives, meets to listen to resident complaints in light of a recent FAA feasibility study on proposed remedies, and to make recommendations.
Complaints at the forum from Midpeninsula residents included allegations that the FAA did not adequately consider having aircraft approach SFO by coming up the Bay, that the agency dealt in half-truths in reporting altitudes over a Woodside navigation beacon, that it cares more about operational efficiency than noise abatement, and that it has not been open, transparent or neighborly in moving air traffic to new flight paths.
Glen Martin, the FAA's regional administrator, kicked off the forum, saying that the public has asked the agency if it can do better. The feasibility study is "a very important step along the way" for getting local input on noise impacts while modernizing a system that annually transports 750 million people and includes a detailed look at public complaints and suggestions and their impact on aircraft, safety and traffic at Bay Area airports, he said.
A key FAA objective: increasing the number of aircraft that, under satellite control and with engines at idle, glide into airports like sliding down a banister, Martin said.
Gliding to a landing remains something of an ideal. In complicated air traffic situations, air traffic controllers take over to direct arriving flights. This "vectoring" process has planes descend from altitude to altitude like walking down steps, Martin said.
Vectoring is annoying to many residents in that pilots use noisy air brakes and rev their engines to maintain momentum in the denser air.
"Vector traffic is much slower and much louder" when crossing over navigation points in the Woodside hills and above Menlo Park, said Dr. Tina Nguyen, a Portola Valley resident who spoke at the forum for Californians for Quiet Skies.
Nguyen accused the FAA of ignoring its own findings. In its study, the agency said "the majority" of aircraft crossing the Woodside navigation point are from across the ocean and arrive at a quiet 8,000 feet above sea level. A "small portion" glide in, which lowers them to 6,000 feet, the agency said, adding that "there is also some vectoring activity of SFO arrivals" from the north and south.
But a chart in the analysis shows north/south traffic not only exceeding oceanic traffic, but also crossing at 6,000 feet, presumably vectoring over homes that are already 2,000 feet above sea level, Nguyen said.
She faulted the FAA for not examining offshore holding patterns as a way to reduce vectoring, and for not focusing on the Midpeninsula given its preponderance as a source of noise complaints.
Martin did not respond.
The Almanac asked the FAA questions on several specific issues, including whether efficiency is a higher priority than noise abatement, the feasibility of returning to older routes over the Bay, the extent to which complaints have gone up since the 2015 debut of new flight paths, the rationale for using computer models rather than actually measuring noise on the ground, and chances for higher altitude crossings over Woodside.
In response, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor referred the Almanac to a technical discussion of noise modeling, and to a May 2015 statement from FAA Administrator Michael Huerta about "a multi-year effort to update the scientific evidence on the relationship between aircraft noise exposure and its effects on communities around airports."
"The FAA is sensitive to public concerns about aircraft noise. We understand the interest in expediting this research, and we will complete this work as quickly as possible," Huerta said. "This Administration takes its responsibility to be responsive to communities' concerns over air noise seriously."
A noise-related survey is ongoing in 20 cities with major airports through December 2016, according to the statement.
At the Redwood City forum, a physicist echoed the opinion of many when he said he was "stunned" by the FAA's use of computer models to gauge noise impacts. The agency should "reflect ground truth" by measuring actual noise, he said.
Nancy Dietz Mosbacher said her family did not move to Woodside to live next to the airport, but that the airport had moved to Woodside an argument heard several times in the context of other communities.
A Santa Cruz County resident accused low-flying aircraft of endangering his religious freedom.
"My prophet is Ralph Waldo Emerson," he told the committee, perhaps mistaking Emerson for his solitude-loving acolyte Henry David Thoreau.
Many residents spoke of a noise-reduction kit available to remedy a high-pitched tone from the Airbus A320, and that airlines flying into SFO should be required to retrofit the aircraft.
At least one resident accused the FAA of gradually moving traffic onto newer, more concentrated flight paths before claiming those paths as existing routes for implementing the Next Generation (NextGen) gliding system of arrivals.