Guaranteed: The snappy response to someone living close to San Francisco International or any other major airport who complains about increased jet noise will be, "What did you expect when you moved near an airport?" But should communities situated under the flight path of a relatively tiny, public-use facility that accommodates small aircraft be expected to accept a significant noise increase because of new commercial use of the airport?
That's a question under review by residents and public officials of Atherton and nearby communities, along with officials from the San Carlos Airport and Surf Air, a new commercial flight service operating from that facility.
But a more urgent question is: Can safe and efficient measures be put in place to mitigate noise from daily flights by Surf Air, an "all-you-can-fly" membership air service that began flying in and out of the county-owned airport in June?
A working group that includes Atherton Mayor Elizabeth Lewis and councilman-elect Rick DeGolia, San Carlos Airport Manager Gretchen Kelly, Surf Air officials, a representative of county Supervisor Warren Slocum's office, and residents mainly from Atherton and North Fair Oaks will try to tackle that question in coming months.
The Atherton City Council directed staff to form the group at its Nov. 20 meeting after hearing from about a dozen residents affected by the rise in aircraft noise, which is certain to become even more problematic when Surf Air increases its daily flights into the airport from six to 10 early next month.
Mayor Lewis and Mr. DeGolia have already met twice with airport, Surf Air, and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials, along with representatives of a residents' group, to address the problem.
As a result of the growing number of noise complaints, Surf Air officials have already put in place several measures, including keeping the aircraft's gear and wing flaps up, and flying faster over the affected areas, but residents have reported that the change in noise level is indiscernible.
Surf Air not alone
Surf Air launched its service this summer with flights to Burbank and Santa Barbara, and next month will add Hawthorne and Palm Springs to the service, according to Cory Cozzens, Surf Air's co-founder and senior vice president. But although Surf Air is taking the heat over the increase in noise from its fleet of Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop aircraft, it's not the only service flying the planes in and out of San Carlos, he noted.
Ms. Kelly, the airport's manager, confirmed that both Jato Aviation and Diamond Aviation commercial flight services also fly the PC-12; all planes use the same flight path, which roughly parallels El Camino Real from the south. She said the airport accommodates 15 to 20 PC-12 flights daily, including Surf Air's six flights, with the heaviest traffic over the weekend.
Aircraft approach San Carlos from the south at about 3,900 feet around Moffett Field, dropping to 2,000 feet over Palo Alto, she said. "In areas where we've had complaints so far, they're descending, generally, (to) around 1,300 to 1,600 feet."
Different flight path?
With Surf Air poised to increase flights next month and further expand to areas such as Lake Tahoe, Sacramento and Monterey in the future, residents told the council that something must change in the planes' approach to the airport to address noise and safety issues.
One Atherton resident told the council that he's lived in his home for 28 years, and has heard planes fly overhead from the beginning. "But this is a different kind of sound; this is a different kind of an airplane," he said.
Others spoke of not being able to be outside their homes because of the noise, and several voiced safety concerns. The flight path crosses over Encinal Elementary School in Atherton, and, according to several North Fair Oaks residents, there are a number of homes providing child care services in the area.
A Holbrook Lane resident noted that the planes have one engine, "and if that engine (shuts down), the plane becomes ... a low-quality glider" whose pilot might find the best emergency landing site to be a school yard.
Although he acknowledges residents' concerns over noise, Mr. Cozzens of Surf Air asserted that PC-12 aircraft have a "tremendous" safety record, and because of that and its ease of flying, it's known in the aviation world as a "pilot's aircraft."
Surf Air also exceeds FAA pilot requirements for aircraft like the PC-12, he said, operating with a captain and first officer. The company has chosen to put into place "requirements that are the same as or very close to the requirements of larger carriers and commercial airlines," he said.
The working group will draft a proposal to the FAA asking it to study a second flight path into San Carlos Airport that would allow planes to avoid flying over neighborhoods. Mayor Lewis told the Almanac that the approach could possibly be redirected over U.S. 101, but noted that the town doesn't want the air traffic pushed over into other neighborhoods. A flight path change, however, could take more than two years, she said, so other possible solutions will be studied by the group.