By Barbara Wood
Last June, Surf Air, a new airline whose passengers pay one monthly price for unlimited flights on 6-passenger planes, began flying in and out of the San Carlos Airport.
More than one local resident testified at a community meeting in Atherton on Dec. 9 that they remember exactly when Surf Air began flying — it was the day they thought a plane was about to land on their home.
Brian Crowley, who lives on 9th Avenue in the Fair Oaks neighborhood, said he ran outside thinking he was about to witness a plane crash the first time he heard a Surf Air plane fly over. The planes are easily recognizable by their blue and white paint.
Mr. Crowley said he was working at home with his double-paned windows all closed in a neighborhood he had always prized for its "sense of quiet."
"I'm hoping we can find a solution that allows Surf Air and other fliers to retain their use of the airport and retain our sense of quiet," he said.
Laurie Hills, who has lived on Encina Avenue in Menlo Park for more than 30 years, said she also ran outside when she heard the first plane. "It is so loud it rattles my windows," she said. "I'm concerned because I understand they're expanding. ... I'm afraid my property values will be impacted."
A solution to the problem that brought more than 75 people to the Pavilion at Holbrook-Palmer Park on a Monday night may not be easy, particularly because Surf Air appears to be a success.
According to co-founder Cory Cozzens, the company has 371 members and about 350 more waiting for new routes to serve their communities.
Before the company began service, nearly 6,000 people across the country said they would be interested in joining, but since the airline does not fly to many of those locations, the company currently has room for a few more members, Mr. Cozzens said.
About half the current Surf Air members live in the Bay Area, with 31 residing in San Mateo County, he said.
The airline just added an airport in Hawthorne, California, to its routes and says it will add Palm Springs later in the month. Surf Air says it plans to eventually double the number of flights using the San Carlos hub.
Mr. Cozzens told the Almanac that 12 flights a day would be the most the airline would fly to and from San Carlos. "I really do think that's about the max based on the demand and also taking into consideration the concerns the neighbors have expressed," he said. "We'll certainly continue to grow," he said.
"The most (flights) we ever really talked about seriously about bringing into San Carlos was 20," he added. "That would, however, kind of stress the infrastructure of the airport pretty heavily."
The airline is also looking at other Bay Area airports for expansion, he said. "We're equally interested in taking flights out to the East Bay. Maybe the Oakland Airport or the Hayward Airport. We'll be using several airports."
The airline, officials from the San Carlos Airport and county and local government representatives have been working to find a solution to the noise problem for several months.
Surf Air has received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to use a visual flight path on days when conditions allow and is now trying "not to fly over the same house twice in the same day," said David Cole, director of operations for Surf Air. However, he admitted, doing so will not get rid of the noise but simply spread out the impact.
Surf Air pilots have also begun to follow U.S. 101, "which already has noise," when they can use a visual approach, he said.
Rick DeGolia, the Atherton councilman who has been representing the town at the Surf Air meetings, says the FAA has also approved exploring whether to shift the flight path 10 degrees to the east.
"The FAA has indicated this would be the easternmost flight path they would be willing to investigate," he said.
However, shifting the flight path "will cause the planes to come over some other residences," Mr. DeGolia added, so the change may not be approved.
Several of the speakers worried that the current flight path is over a number of local schools, including Summit and Menlo-Atherton high schools, and Taft, Encinal and Walter Hays elementary schools.
Laura Caplan, chair of the North Fair Oaks Advisory Council, said she is "encouraged by all the collaboration and discussion" around the issue. However, she said, "I would hate to see it get pushed over into someone else's backyard."
"Just because it's growth doesn't mean that it's good, doesn't mean that we have to say yes," she said.
Surf Air planes are turbine-powered Pilatus PC-12s. Several experienced pilots who spoke at the meeting said the Swiss-made planes have a great reputation for safety and reliability.
The PC-12 "is one of the safest turboprops in the business," said Surf Air's David Cole. A report by independent analyst Robert Breiling in 2013 showed the plane has an accident and fatality rate — 0.74 accidents and 0.3 fatalities per 100,000 flight hours — that is less than half the average for single-engine turboprop planes (1.86 accidents and 0.72 fatalities per 100,000 flight hours) and twin-engine turboprops (1.94 accidents and 0.68 fatalities per 100,000 flight hours).
While Surf Air is not considered a commercial airline, it is choosing to operate under many of the rules that govern commercial aircraft, Mr. Cozzens said. They have two pilots, when only one is required, and their captains have the same certification as commercial airline pilots, even though "we could technically operate with only one pilot who only holds that lower certificate," Mr. Cozzens said.
Pilots fly a half day, get a half day off and "we get them back home in their beds at night," he said. They work five days on, followed by five days off. One plane and crew is based in San Carlos and 12 of their pilots live in or near the Bay Area, he said.
Having a plane and crew in San Carlos has "minimized flights during early hours and weekends," says Mr. Cozzens. The first flight arrives at 8:45 on weekdays and 10:05 on weekends. Two daily roundtrips are also eliminated on weekends.
"All of this should minimize noise impact during the hours that people are most likely to be home," he said.