Committee outlines potential plane-noise recommendations

Local cities could see noise reduce through planes flying at higher altitudes, other measures

A multi-city and county committee tasked with finding ways to reduce overhead noise from airplanes going to and from San Francisco International Airport has released preliminary proposed recommendations.

The 12-member Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals has considered multiple suggestions from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), community groups and professionals since first convening in March at the invitation of U.S. representatives Anna Eshoo, Sam Farr and Jackie Speier.

Residents in Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties have been affected by the increase in flights and noise since the FAA rolled out a new nationwide air traffic program, NextGen, which was mandated by Congress to make the nation's aviation network more efficient.

NextGen was launched in the Bay Area in March 2015, to the consternation of many residents.

The Select Committee, which is chaired by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, was cautious in formulating potential recommendations, stressing that the 34-page document is a working paper and that the committee had not yet made recommendations; these are only proposed.

The path to making recommendations to the FAA has been contentious, with communities at times in vocal opposition to each other's proposals. In some areas of concern, the committee did not yet commit to a recommendation, instead choosing to identify the things they could agree on and leave open for discussion those where consensus is not yet reached.

The public will have a chance to weigh in on Oct. 27, when the committee will hold a public comment hearing from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Palo Alto City Council Chambers.

The committee's ideas fall into three categories: Those based on the FAA's proposals; the public's proposals ("other potential solutions"); and longer-term issues. Below are summaries of key parts of the document and possible recommendations most likely to impact Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Mountain View and Menlo Park.

The FAA proposals:

Change restricted airspace around SFO

The Committee would recommend changing the shape of the restricted airspace around SFO, known as Class B airspace, which is designed to ensure a higher level of safety for arriving aircraft.

The FAA proposed altering the size or shape of the airspace so that pilots wouldn't need to use altitude and speed adjustments to stay in the prescribed zone.

Currently the airspace parameters force planes arriving from the south over the Santa Cruz Mountains to have to "level off" to stay within the airspace. That requires aircraft to use speed brakes, increase thrust, and other methods that create greater noise. Communities most affected include near Capitola and the Midpeninsula.

Move the southern arrival flight path to the west, near the former Big Sur route

The Committee has not yet determined if it will recommend the alternative.

NextGen moved the flight path of planes arriving from the south at SFO more to the east, putting aircraft over some coastal residents in the Santa Cruz area who had not previously been in the flight path. NextGen removed a flight path called Big Sur.

The proposed route, DAVYJ, would be similar to the Big Sur track: roughly 3-4 miles to the west of the current flight path, which is near the Santa Cruz County coastline near Capitola.

But DAVYJ, while strongly favored by some Santa Cruz County residents, is also widely opposed by many Midpeninsula residents. They point out that the FAA's own data show that decibel levels would greatly increase for many Midpeninsula residents living in the most densely populated areas, and the higher noise levels would occur over a longer swath, particularly over Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and parts of Mountain View.

Other potential solutions

Higher altitudes over MENLO waypoint

The designated point over which all of the planes from the south must pass, the MENLO waypoint, is located several city blocks south of the intersection of Willow Road and U.S. 101. Planes currently cross at 4,000 feet, although by an agreement arranged more than a decade ago through Ms. Eshoo and then-Palo Alto Mayor Gary Fazzino, planes were supposed to fly no lower than 5,000 feet.

The Committee would recommend planes fly at a higher altitude at the MENLO waypoint and that the FAA assess if a different waypoint would be feasible. The committee noted it does not recommend that a different waypoint be established if it results in shifting noise to other communities.

Some people have suggested that a new waypoint should be located to the east and/or north of MENLO, presumably over a less populated area and at a higher altitude. Other existing waypoints located in San Francisco Bay just to the north and south of the eastern shoreline of the Dumbarton Bridge might be used. Planes crossing at these Bay waypoints would be at a higher altitude.

In June 2016, an average of 183 aircraft crossed each day over this waypoint, representing 30 percent of the arrivals into SFO over one of the Peninsula's most populated areas, according to the FAA. Currently 50 percent of the aircraft on the path are "vectored" prior to the MENLO waypoint, causing additional low-altitude noise and air traffic over these communities.

Increase altitudes and how planes descend into SFO

The Select Committee would recommend that planes come in at a slightly steeper approach that would allow them to begin their descent at a higher altitude, which would reduce noise. The committee would also recommend that, to the greatest extent possible, while still ensuring the safety of the aircraft, that the altitude be increased for all flight paths in and out of SFO.

Retrofit certain planes with wake vortex generators to reduce noise

The Committee would recommend retrofitting a certain class of aircraft, the Airbus A320, built before 2014, with wake vortex generators to reduce noise.

Airbus A320 aircraft built before 2014 make a whistling or whining sound on approach due to the design of the wing. The whine can be reduced by mounting a small air deflector on each wing. The technology reportedly costs $3,000-$5,000 per plane. The noise reduction is claimed to be two to 11 decibels, depending on flight factors. Roughly 35 percent of the aircraft arriving and departing SFO need the retrofit.

Shift northern arrivals to the Bodega "East" leg

Planes arriving from the north currently use the Bodega path, in which planes reach a point roughly over Daly City and continue south flying past SFO, using either the Peninsula (the so-called West leg) or San Francisco Bay (the East leg), to make a U-turn for landing on two runways. The Bodega East leg shares the final approach path into SFO with aircraft arriving from the east.

The Committee would recommend greater use of the Bodega East leg for planes. From 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., when air traffic is lighter, virtually all such aircraft should come in using the San Francisco Bay approach, the committee is proposing.

Planes using the East leg create a dramatically lesser noise impact versus aircraft using the West leg, which flies over the highly populated Midpeninsula, and particularly Palo Alto. Air traffic was almost evenly split between the two legs, but in May 2016 roughly 70 percent of the arriving aircraft began flying over the Midpeninsula.

Enforce 8,000 foot minimum over Woodside navigational beacon

In July 1998, a procedure was instituted that required flights over the Woodside navigational beacon to be no lower than 8,000 feet above sea level, "traffic permitting."

The Select Committee would recommend that planes comply with the 8,000-foot altitude, traffic permitting. The altitude restriction would also apply to all vectored flights in the Woodside beacon area. Further restrictions would prohibit any overnight crossings at Woodside below 8,000 feet.

Numerous reports from the community claim the planes are currently not honoring the 1998 agreement and are flying at much lower altitudes including at night when residents are particularly sensitive to noise. Some flights are allowed to come in at 6,000 feet over this point, including overnight. An estimated 36 percent of Oceanic flights arriving at SFO between 1 a.m. and 6 a.m. fly over the Woodside point.

Develop new rules for overnight flights

The Committee would recommend that the FAA, SFO, and industry users work to establish new, additional overnight noise-abatement procedures within the next six months.

Flights are considerably reduced during night hours starting at 11 p.m., and there is considerable potential for aircraft to be rerouted over the San Francisco Bay and Pacific Ocean, instead of the Peninsula, the committee noted.

Modify where aircraft can vector

The Committee would recommend that the FAA identify locations with the most compatible land uses for vectoring, which involves turning aircraft off the assigned procedure or flight path. To vector, air-traffic-control gives orders to change speed, make a turn or alter altitude, which can cause increased noise.

New vector locations could be over the Pacific Ocean or San Francisco Bay.

Vectoring is common over Menlo Park, East Palo Alto, Palo Alto and Mountain View from east (Oceanic), north (Bodega) and south-arriving flights. Roughly 50 percent of the arrivals from the south are currently vectored so they will be sequenced and spaced properly for arrival.

If the pilot is not given a speed or altitude restriction by air-traffic control, it is unlikely that noise will result, according to the committee.

Modify arrival procedure into San Jose International Airport

The Committee has not determined a potential recommendation.

The northern arrival path into San Jose International Airport, called BRIXX, runs down the Peninsula, roughly over La Honda and Boulder Creek before turning and flying south and then east and north for a final approach. The path intersects with the southern-arrival path (SERFR) going to SFO.

Under NextGen, the arrival path became more concentrated; with vectoring moving southward. About 76 percent of the BRIXX flights are vectored or turned off the flight path prior to the point where the two flight paths intersect. These changes resulted in complaints from residents in affected areas.

Suggestions have included moving the intersection of the two flight paths farther to the north and east, potentially over the Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve; and increasing the altitude of the San Jose flight path so that it is above the altitude of the southern flight arrival path. But the FAA said that could move noise further into the Midpeninsula area already being impacted.

Longer-term issues

Any recommendation from the committee should not be deemed to end the discussion, or the problems. The Select Committee may also recommend establishing a permanent committee to address regional aircraft noise issues. That organization would be an adjunct committee of one of the existing community roundtables at either the San Francisco or Oakland International airports. It could include a new, independent commission devoted to airport noise or and other airport issues, and it would continue the work done by the Select Committee.

The committee also recommended noise-measurement modifications that would more accurately take into account the noise experienced by people on the ground. Noise levels currently are taken cumulatively within a 24-hour period and don't accurately measure the true impact experienced by residents.

The committee would recommend that the U.S. Congress require the FAA to adopt the new measurements. The FAA should also monitor and document noise exposure of any proposed solutions before and after they are put in place so there is a measurement of how well they are working.

The complete draft "Report of the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals" may be viewed here.

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5 people like this
Posted by Tired of Cronyism
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2016 at 11:07 am

Talk, measurements, monitor, document...

Congress unleashed this in 2012, made this 24/7 assault on human health and the environment legal. The majority of politicians have no intention of stopping this abuse. They are captive to industry, in this case, aviation and its dependents. There is nothing safe or efficient about these incessant low altitude flight paths hammering us throughout our country and the rest of the world. It's all about CAPACITY, increasing it to saturation of our skies.

Low altitude is essential to the CAPACITY/profit goals and THE #1 reason for the hellish noise, air and visual pollution we're experiencing. And guess what our elected officials will ensure wins? CAPACITY/PROFIT. This committee is one great big PR stunt. More games on the tax dollar.

Key to FAA NextGen torture is “Wake RECAT” (Wake Turbulence Recategorization). Aircraft create a turbulence wake that limits how close they can fly to each other. The distance can be reduced by flying aircraft at lower altitudes, allowing slower speeds in the denser air, and on a level flight path, because descending/ascending causes a greater wake. This is why there is such push back about angles of landings/departures and alititude.

2 people like this
Posted by Tired of Cronyism
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2016 at 2:54 pm

This is what this industry and its dependents are against which is the very thing necessary to protect human health and the environment:

"The Long Beach law sets a sound threshold, imposes a curfew for takeoffs and landings between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and limits the number of commercial takeoffs to about 50 per day."
(Residents critical of plan to add international travel at Long Beach Airport, Press Telegram 10/21/2016, link to article: Web Link) (See also, Federal Aviation Administration Provides Legal Opinion on Feasibility Study, International Flights, LB Post 10/20/2016, link to article: Web Link)

So, Congress got to work for this industry, as it does with every other one, a long time ago (the federal Aircraft Noise Compatibility Act was passed in 1990) to seize local control so the public doesn't interfere with money-making objectives with such silly concerns like noise, air, and visual pollution--such silly things like wanting to sleep, be as healthy as possible and live as long as possible, be indoors or outdoors with a sense of peaceful enjoyment. And the coup de grace work of Congress for this industry, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012--enter NextGen program (low altitude madness), which 9/11 may well have delayed; might not have made people feel too safe to see aircraft so low in our skies back then (Who would ever know now if anything was about to crash?).

Congress and the FAA are essentially acting as administrators for aviation interests. Holding the whip behind them are the aviation interests who, while subsidized to the eyeballs with tax dollars, sue the minute they sniff a restriction placed on their business objectives, sue the minute citizens' rights trump corporations' rights.

The U.S. has nearly 320 million people. How many are in Congress, how many heading these industries? It beggars belief that they get away with this wholesale destruction of human and environmental rights and use tax dollars to foot the bill! And use more tax dollars for their PR stunts and delay tactics!

Like this comment
Posted by Tired of Cronyism
a resident of another community
on Nov 1, 2016 at 4:31 pm

"CULVER CITY TO SUE FAA: Flight Changes Already Impact Residents" (Culver City Observer, October 27, 2016) article link:
Web Link

Quote from article:
“We invite other jurisdictions that are also impacted to join with us in our efforts, requesting the FAA to recognize that communities around the country are subject to these negative consequences,” he said. “Our hope is the FAA will work with us and other communities to mitigate the serious impacts on our residents’ quality of life from these flight path changes.”
-Culver City Mayor Jim B. Clarke

"Newport Beach is suing the FAA over new flight plans, and Culver City is expected to follow" (LA Times, October 27, 2016) article link:
Web Link

Quotes from article:
"Newport Beach’s lawsuit was filed with the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles cases against federal agencies. The suit alleges violations of the National Environmental Policy Act."

"Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA in Los Angeles, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation as a matter of policy. He added, however, that the FAA stands by its environmental analysis."

"The Culver City and Newport Beach lawsuits are part of a growing number of legal challenges around the country that dispute the findings of the environmental review for Metroplex. Similar cases are pending in Boston, New York, Phoenix and the Bay Area."

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