Almanac

Viewpoint - April 16, 2014

Editorial: Written comments only at aircraft noise workshop

Aircraft noise is a fact of life on the Midpeninsula, but especially in the Portola Valley and Woodside areas that often are directly under the southern and western approaches to San Francisco International Airport (SFO).

Now, as part of its plan to optimize the routes into SFO, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is required to publish an environmental assessment (EA). The FAA is also holding public workshops around the Bay Area, which will provide those concerned about noise from low-flying commercial jets an opportunity to submit written comments only about the draft assessment, instead of taking live testimony as many had hoped.

Local residents, with support from congresswomen Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier, had planned to testify at the workshop about the FAA's new maps in the draft report. "Two flight path options (will) converge directly over Portola Valley, and specifically over the neighborhood of Ladera," said Tina Nguyen of Portola Valley and Jim Lyons of unincorporated Woodside in a co-authored letter to the congresswomen. What will be the altitudes of these flights as they pass over these hillside communities? Will traditional air traffic control, with its noisy braking maneuvers, be constrained? Why do computer-modeled noise projections disagree so significantly with data from actual noise monitors?

The FAA has said it will take such questions — in writing — at workshops the week of April 14 and publish responses later. This would be a concern since it would not allow any back-and-forth before the 30-day comment period ends on April 24.

For many years, residents have tried and failed to get assurances from the FAA that its flight rules would restrict incoming jets to a minimum altitude of 8,000 feet when passing over a navigation beacon in the hills above Woodside, a minimum that Rep. Eshoo managed to get the FAA to agree to in 2001. But residents who monitor the altitudes of these flights say that many continue to violate that minimum despite a reminder by Ms. Eshoo in 2005.

An FAA spokesman has said that "Northern California controllers have noise abatement Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and use them when traffic volume permits. Often, however, traffic volume prevents us from using them... While we keep almost all SFO arrivals at 8,000 feet at night, it is not possible to keep all SFO arrivals at that altitude during the day because that would create conflicts with other aircraft using that busy space."

Any hopes that the FAA would respond to questions posed April 17 before the comment period ends a week later were dashed by an FAA spokesman, who told the Almanac last week that only written comments would be accepted April 17 and that all FAA comments on the questions submitted would be made to the questioner in writing.

Local residents who had hoped to hear their questions answered and had made a concerted request to extend the comment period on the FAA's assessment by 60 days have been disappointed by the agency's current plan.

It also remains unclear if the two congresswomen can prevail on FAA officials to take residents' many concerns into account. They have written a letter to the secretary of transportation asking him to instruct the FAA to extend the comment period by 60 days.

The Airport Community Roundtable, a group of officials from Peninsula communities, including Woodside, Portola Valley, Menlo Park and Atherton, make their concerns heard, but to what effect at the FAA? They, too, have called for a 60-day extension to give those interested more time to research their questions.

Mayor Ann Wengert, who represents Portola Valley on the Roundtable, says the noise issue "is a real interesting dynamic. ... (The FAA is) not required to even respond to comments, but they have said that they likely will (this time). This will be a serious test of how much impact citizen groups can have. If residents have comments, this is the time."

Clearly the FAA owes it to everyone affected by the new approach routes a chance to testify in person before their peers on the draft environmental assessment. In the interest of getting all pertinent comments and questions on the record, we urge the FAA to respond to live testimony at the workshop and extend the comment period for another 60 days.

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