FAA vows to take fresh look at flight paths, altitudes

Federal agency responds to flurry of Bay Area complaints about airplane noise

Responding to a rising volume of complaints about airplane noise, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has agreed to take a fresh look at flight paths, plane altitudes and new procedures that would bring some peace to the afflicted skies above San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties.

In a letter prepared for U.S. representatives Anna Eshoo, Sam Farr and Jackie Speier, the federal agency has announced a new three-phased initiative that will explore a variety of possible modifications to flight speeds, altitudes and waypoint locations.

While the FAA response does not have a similar plan for issues around the ever-intensifying use of the San Carlos Airport, it does make it clear than the item is on its radar. "Apart from the efforts described in this report, there are (to be determined) conversations with communities around the (San Carlos) airport that are concerned about the increase in flights and noise," the FAA response says.

After a preliminary feasibility study in the first phase, the administration would then spend the second phase further studying any amendments and procedures "determined to be initially feasible, flyable, and operationally acceptable from a safety point of view," according to an FAA report released Monday by the three House members. In the third phase, the FAA would formally implement the revised procedures and make whatever airspace changes are deemed appropriate.

The FAA announced its initiative at a time when the number of complaints about airplane noise is skyrocketing and new citizen groups devoted to the topic are sprouting up to lobby change and, in some cases, take legal action.

For many, the problem was exacerbated by Next Generation Air Transportation System (commonly known as NextGen), an effort that the FAA began to roll out last year that standardized travel lanes for aircraft and, in doing so, required planes to share a more narrow band of airspace.

The change was particularly acute for Palo Alto, Portola Valley, Woodside, Santa Cruz and other communities that are located within the flight paths. In Palo Alto alone, the number of complaints shot up from 60 in June 2014 to 2,733 in June 2015, according to a resolution the City Council passed in August. And in Portola Valley and Woodside, hundreds of residents signed a petition last year complaining about the rising decibel levels.

In August, there were 8,770 complaints from Palo Alto, 12,967 from Santa Cruz, 15,562 from Los Gatos and 2,440 from Portola Valley, according to a report from the SFO Aircraft Noise Abatement Office.

A group, led by Portola Valley resident Dr. Tina Nguyen and Woodside resident Jim Lyons, has filed a petition challenging the FAA's analysis of the new flight plan and its impacts. Both Palo Alto and Portola Valley have also hired consultants to further analyze the airplane noise levels and consider mitigations.

Other communities, including Santa Cruz and Los Gatos, have also reported growing noise levels. The resolution adopted by Palo Alto City Council in August notes that the number of complaints from Los Gatos and Summit/Skyline increased from zero in January and February 2015 to 3,553 in June 2015.

The FAA's new initiative doesn't guarantee any changes, though it does commit the agency to further studying its flight procedures and coordinating its findings with local stakeholders. During the second phase of the initiative, the FAA will "conduct the formal environmental and safety reviews, coordinate and seek feedback from existing and/or new community roundtables, members of affected industry, and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) before moving forward with the formal amendment process."

According to the FAA's timetable, some of these analyses had already been launched in early October. This includes the analysis of raising the allowed altitude at several Bay Area flight paths, including the "MENLO" waypoint in the Menlo Park and Palo Alto area. The analysis will look at raising the altitude at this waypoint to 5,000 feet, the altitude to which the FAA had previously committed in 2000. Since the launch of NextGen, residents have complained that the altitudes in the area have fallen to between 3,500 and 4,000 feet.

As part of this initiative, the FAA says it will consider moving speed adjustments to over water, rather than land, and consider changes to air-traffic operations and the potential for using more "fly-friendly" runways to reduce concerns in certain locations. The agency has also committed to hold community forums to engage the community about the ongoing effort to curb the noise level.

"Addressing noise concerns in a densely populated and operationally complex area like Northern California is best done in a forum (such as existing and/or new roundtables) that includes community leaders and is supported by the FAA and Bay Area Airports," the FAA report states.

Though the outcome is yet to be determined, the three California representatives lauded the FAA's action to address the complaints. In a joint press release, Rep. Eshoo called the FAA plan an "important first step."

"The FAA leadership will follow with community meetings, coordinated through our offices, to explain in detail the FAA's plan to address the noise problem being experienced in our regions," she said.

Rep. Farr also characterized the FAA initiative as a good first step and cited is as evidence that the FAA "is willing to consider the changes proposed by the community."

"For months, the commercial aircraft noise in Santa Cruz and the surrounding area has been terrible," he said. "From the beginning, I have told the FAA that they created this mess so it is up to them to fix it."

The initiative, he said in the statement, shows that "everyone is committed to developing some real solutions."

"I hope the FAA will continue to listen to the communities it serves and work with them to solve any problems that arise from the switch to the NextGen flight plan," he said.

Rep. Speier, whose district encompasses portions of San Francisco and San Mateo County, called that the FAA initiative a "compilation of ideas that were offered by the public regarding SFO and the FAA's recent meetings in our three congressional districts, as well as requests made by the SFO Airport Community Roundtable." Some of these ideas, she said, may be "deemed workable by the FAA and some may not."

"However, having previously been resistant to taking community suggestions, the FAA, for the first time in many years, has committed to studying ideas submitted by the affected communities," she said in a statement. "I am gratified that the FAA is rolling up its sleeves to come up with solutions. The health of those who live under constant bombardment of airplane noise is being seriously compromised and the FAA has a responsibility to take action to address it."

Related content:

Two new bills aim to lower volume on airplane noise

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11 people like this
Posted by Menlo Park resident
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 17, 2015 at 11:30 am

This issue should be on the radar of the Menlo Park City Council. The noise problem is not limited to Palo Alto - residents of Menlo Park east of El Camino are impacted as well. Any solution proposed by the FAA should not just shift the burden to another community but should be equitable to all neighborhoods.

Raising the minimum elevation at the MENLO waypoint to 5'000 (FAA's proposal) will do little. I have been tracking noisy flights for about a month: the average elevation above my house (about a mile from the waypoint) is about 4,500' and the noise is loud enough to disrupt conversation with the windows closed. Also it is the sheer number of flights that is the problem rather than the individual noise level: during peak periods, every 3 or 4 minutes.

Mandating airfoils on Airbus 320 jets would be a helpful step (see SkyPosse website for details)- that would at least reduce the high whine that sets one's teeth on edge. But FAA may not have the jurisdiction to demand that step.

5 people like this
Posted by Weeping Willows?
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 17, 2015 at 12:43 pm

"the noise is loud enough to disrupt conversation with the windows closed"

Uh, that's odd; when we go for our evening constitutional, I don't notice much different than the past - no "whining", no disrupted conversation. And we don't even bring "closed windows" on our walk!

This is where you lose me. [Part removed. Please make your point without negative characterization of other comments.]

12 people like this
Posted by Frank
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Nov 17, 2015 at 1:17 pm

Weeping Willows. How fortunate for you that the roar of frequent flights do not unduly disturb you. However, please be considerate enough to understand that the noise does indeed negatively impact thousands of other people and therefore should not be cavalierly dismissed.

I hope the FAA moves quickly to significantly reduce the noise and to end the narrow corridor that is concentrating the flight noise. Nevertheless, the agreement by the FAA to consider the issue should not lesson the efforts of our communities to restore our skies to a semblance of tranquility.

Thank you to Anna Eshoo for her efforts.

4 people like this
Posted by Weeping Willows?
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 17, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Frank - the portion deleted was constructive advice about not exaggerating the reality, or overuse of hyperbole, as in "loud enough to disrupt conversation with the windows closed"

Whereas "restore our skies to a semblance of tranquility" is wishful thinking, wanting to go back to pre-SFO and San Carlos days. While more elegantly written, it is certainly less quantifiable.

Like this comment
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 17, 2015 at 5:15 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Raising the crossing altitide for the MENLO intersection from 4000 ft to 5000 ft would, given the inverse square law for sound transmission, have a significant impact on the ground noise level from any one individual flight.

The FAA study fails to adequately consider how NextGen technology could be used to more evenly distribute the inbound SFO flights over a broader geographical area.

2 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 17, 2015 at 5:19 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.


Surfair flights (the noisiest of the lot) routinely pass directly over my house. Usually at about 1200'. When we're inside we don't usually hear anything. When outside is certainly isn't close to "disrupting conversation." And since it's outside there are no "closed windows" to interfere with what little noise there is. Sorry, but as weeping willows? has pointed out, your statement is hyperbolic.

19 people like this
Posted by Menlo Park Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 17, 2015 at 8:18 pm

It amuses me how snarky commenters can get when a post conflicts with their own experience. Nevertheless, for those of you who care about the impact of living under the new SFO approach path, I recommend a website that automates noise complaints to SFO: It provides real-time identification of overflights,the model of jet, altitude and descent rate AND reports each of your observations to SFO for inclusion in their required monthly report.

8 people like this
Posted by Peeved in PV
a resident of Portola Valley: Portola Valley Ranch
on Nov 20, 2015 at 12:39 pm

What is the motivation for people who are not bothered by the noise to criticize people who want to reduce the noise? How does reducing or eliminating the noise negatively impact them? Perhaps they are investors in Surf Air . . .

No one is suggesting reducing the total number of flights to and from SFO, so the economic benefits of the increased number of flights is not an issue.

Sigh. I expect there will be the usual snarky comments from 'the noise doesn't bother me' commenters.

1 person likes this
Posted by Weeping Willows?
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Nov 20, 2015 at 12:55 pm

"Perhaps they are investors in Surf Air . . . "

Oh, yeah, little drone workers at Anthem and other VC's are hired specifically to post on the Almanac! That's part of the attitude that drives normal folk crazy! Talk about snark!

I can only speak for me - what gets me is the over-the-top exaggeration and the selfish NINBY-ism in the related threads.

- hyperbole, as in "loud enough to disrupt conversation with the windows closed"

- NIMBY-ism, as in 'hey, let's move the flight paths elsewhere!'

So, shall we talk about your perception of snark? Or the red-herring you lay out about investors?!?

Want to get serious?

Lose the 3 tactics shown i almost every thread (gross hyperbole, NIMBY and red-herring,) and maybe there's room to get all of us on the same page and look for solutions.

Lastly: get your team on the same page - there IS a difference between discussion on San Carlos/Surfair, and SFO. Suggest you have a website and an FAQ educating folks on the discussion.

My $.02

Like this comment
Posted by Menlo Voter
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Nov 20, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Menlo Voter is a registered user.

Weeping Willows?:

Couldn't have said it better. Nice post.

2 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Nov 20, 2015 at 1:24 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"What is the motivation for people who are not bothered by the noise to criticize people who want to reduce the noise? "

Disagreeing with your description of the probelm and most particularly with you definition of the solution is NOT criticizing you but rather taking issue with your statement of the problem and your proiposed solution.

Others do not have to give you a "safe space" wherein you are allowed to define the problem and proscribe the solution without having both intelligent debate and disagreement.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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