To the consternation of local residents and Surf Air alike, San Mateo County officials announced this week that the alternate route the commuter airline had been using to avoid the Midpeninsula on its way to the San Carlos Airport is no longer an option.
A letter from San Mateo County Assistant County Manager Mike Callagy says that starting Thursday, Jan. 5, the Federal Aviation Administration says that while it evaluates the six-month trial of the route, Surf Air will have to go back to using the original GPS route that takes it over residential neighborhoods, including some in Menlo Park, Atherton and North Fair Oaks, on the way to the San Carlos Airport.
The letter, dated Dec. 30 but distributed via email on Jan. 3, says the alternate flight path, known as the Bayside approach, "was developed for use by Surf Air in an effort to reduce aircraft noise for approximately 140,000 residents living near the GPS approach into the San Carlos Airport." The letter says Surf Air used the alternate route for about 60 percent of its flights during the trial period.
Surf Air started using the San Carlos Airport in June 2013 and now schedules as many as 36 flights a day to and from San Carlos. Its customers pay a monthly fee for unlimited flights within California and to Las Vegas. The airline recently started a separate operation in Europe.
Although all involved admit they knew that use of the Bayside route was a trial, most seemed surprised by its abrupt halt.
"We've known from the beginning that this was six-month test," said Jim Sullivan, Surf Air's senior vice president of operations. "We really didn't know what was going to happen at the end."
"Our pilots are going to be pretty disappointed" to no longer be able to use the Bayside route, he said. "They enjoyed flying it."
Sullivan said he does not know how long the FAA's evaluation of the trial will take, and county officials said they also were not sure of details of the evaluation.
Callagy said the county hopes the FAA sees the continuation of the alternative route "as not the perfect solution to this ongoing issue, but rather the best solution for now to bring some relief to those most impacted by commercial flights coming into the San Carlos Airport."
Atherton Mayor Mike Lempres said he had received numerous emails from residents upset about the ending of the Bayside route trial. He said the town would let the FAA know "we don't want this to go back to the old way" and try to get permission to continue to use the route during the evaluation period. "It's clearly important to our residents," he said.
Adam Ullman, a resident of North Fair Oaks who lives directly under Surf Air's GPS flight path to the San Carlos Airport, said he was "not surprised, but I'm obviously very disappointed" about the ending of the trial.
Use of the Bayside route meant "we would still hear the planes but the frequency was reduced – absolutely reduced," he said. "Instead of it being a constant nuisance, it became a more infrequent one."
However, he admitted, "we've always known that this was six-month test period and we could go back to square one. Here we are at square one.”
San Mateo County Board of Supervisors President Don Horsley said he at first had believed the FAA's approval of the Bayside route was permanent. "Only later did the county become aware that this was a 'test' and the county didn’t necessarily know that the FAA would abruptly end the test," he said.
In March, the county's Board of Supervisors authorized a study of noise issues at the San Carlos Airport. Issuing of the final report and recommendations from the study has been delayed several times, and in December Supervisor Horsley said the report should be back before the supervisors in January or February.