Aircraft noise activists seek ear of FAA via FAA veterans


In the search for compelling arguments to present to the Federal Aviation Administration on why fewer commercial flights bound to San Francisco International Airport should pass over Ladera, Portola Valley and Woodside, a small team of residents is asking the Portola Valley Town Council for money to engage a consulting firm skilled at talking with the FAA.

Commercial air traffic over the area rose 220 percent from the year 2000 to 2014 while traffic into SFO rose by just 23 percent, Portola Valley resident Dr. Tina Nguyen told the Almanac. The FAA did not disagree with these numbers, she said. And some 1,200 residents (including residents of Palo Alto) have signed an online petition complaining about aircraft noise, she said.

The community has communicated with the FAA in the past via Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, and Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, an exchange arranged through the efforts of Dr. Nguyen, Vic Schachter of Portola Valley and Jim Lyons of Woodside, but to little avail, they say.

The skies above Portola Valley and Ladera have become an unofficial holding pattern, Dr. Nguyen told the council in May. She and her partners have requested alternate flight paths from the FAA and have filed an appeal in San Mateo County Superior Court asking the FAA to redo its study that showed "no significant noise impacts" on the area.

The FAA might be more inclined to listen to a consulting firm of former FAA employees, who could also generate a technical report for Ms. Eshoo and Ms. Speier, Dr. Nguyen said. The firm could evaluate the new holding pattern, reconsider the old holding patterns over Monterey and Point Reyes, and ask why fewer incoming flights now approach SFO by flying up the Bay, she said.

The residents are seeking from $6,000 to $10,000 to hire a consultant. The council requested more specifics on how the consultants would approach the problem, and an update is set for the council meeting on Wednesday, June 10.

A Ladera resident told the council in May that over the last two years, "the noise has gotten so bad, it's roughly one flight per minute on weekends." A technical report could present "hard facts" to Congressional representatives, he said.

Resident Bud Eisberg, a former commercial pilot, compared the skies to a jammed freeway. "It's a dynamic moving situation and it's extremely difficult, from an air-traffic controller's viewpoint, to manage," he said. "We're in an urban area."

Council members offered skepticism and sympathy.

"It's extremely complex," said Councilwoman Ann Wengert, who said she spent an hour with air-traffic controllers watching flights over Portola Valley. "When they had certain situations arise, they had no choice but to move airplanes," she said.

She recommended getting specific information on changes in flight patterns. But, she added, "Unless I stop flying, unless we all stop flying, it is just here to stay. ... The area has changed and we are somewhat the victims of our own prosperity."

Engaging a consultant looks reasonable, Councilman John Richards said. "It's been a long time coming and I think we need to take the next step."

Down a banister

The FAA is implementing systemic changes meant to reduce the number of people on the ground exposed to "significant noise around U.S. airports in absolute terms, notwithstanding aviation growth," according to an FAA study.

This system uses satellite guidance. Aircraft are assigned "tighter flight tracks ... (to) reduce the ground noise footprint," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told the Almanac for an earlier story.

The new system includes tailored arrival, in which a plane is given a 200-mile glide path to the runway, "like sliding down a banister rather than walking down steps," Mr. Gregor said. Aircraft operate more efficiently, cleanly and quietly, he said.

But air traffic controllers need flexibility, Mr. Gregor said in an email. "We stated in the Northern California Metroplex Environmental Assessment that even with the new ... procedures, controllers would still require the ability to vector aircraft for sequencing, spacing, weather etc.," he said. "We received a number of public comments about vectoring, which we addressed in the final EA."

Click here to read those comments on the FAA's draft assessment. Click on Appendix F.

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