A 'considerable issue'
Supervisor Don Horsley said county officials have met with thousands of people affected by the noise from Surf Air's turbo-prop PC-12 planes over the four years since Surf Air began using the airport. "We're not talking about a handful of people," he said. "This is a considerable issue."
The Board of Supervisors on June 27 unanimously approved funding for: an airport communications specialist to work with the public and pilots; hiring a contractor to investigate new air routes that avoid residences; and putting in place an automated flight tracking system tied to the noise complaint system.
All are funded for three years, with a total cost, including authorizations to adjust the contracts, of $1.03 million.
County Public Works Director Jim Porter said that while he hasn't added up how much money the county has spent responding to Surf Air-related problems at the airport, it is "several hundred thousand dollars."
Mr. Porter outlined a proposed noise-management program for the airport. Conspicuously absent from the plan is the curfew earlier proposed by the county, which would have limited flights at night and early mornings. Many residents and the Atherton City Council had supported the curfew.
"There is a curfew on the table that the county believes will hold up in court," North Fair Oaks resident and longtime Surf Air opponent Adam Ullman told the supervisors. "Please put the curfew in place," he said. "We need relief now. Take a look at those other options concurrently."
All Atherton's City Council members signed a June 23 letter asking the county to take these immediate actions: submit to the Federal Aviation Administration proposed county ordinances that would create a curfew on flights and limit the number of scheduled flights per operator at the San Carlos Airport; and adopt a resolution declaring that the airport has a "noise problem" and send the resolution to the California Department of Transportation.
Atherton Mayor Mike Lempres said the council asked that the proposed ordinances be submitted to the FAA because council members understand such regulations must be approved by that agency. However, "the town would be happy to be wrong on that one," he said.
Surf Air actions
In the meantime, Surf Air spokeswoman Angela Vargo says the airline is making a number of changes to reduce noise from its planes, including flying over the Bay whenever possible to avoid homes on the Midpeninsula.
The company is also seeking permission to increase the flying altitude over neighborhoods such as Sunnyvale and Cupertino, which planes pass over when using the Bay route. Surf Air has asked to increase the altitude up to 6,000 feet, from the current 3,000 feet, when conditions allow.
Surf Air pilots have also been told to use minimum engine power as they arrive at the San Carlos Airport, she said.
There appears to have been a political campaign against a flight curfew, even though a proposal for a curfew wasn't on the supervisors' agenda. A group called "Keep San Mateo Flying" recently bought Facebook ads urging people to go to a website that sends automated emails to the supervisors.
"A recent county ordinance is singling out one locally owned business! Act now!" the ad says.
Clicking on the ad took readers to a page asking them to oppose "the county proposal that would shut down air service at San Carlos Airport." The message said that the "San Mateo Board of Supervisors is considering restricting Surf Air's aircraft operations at the San Carlos Airport," although nothing on the supervisors' agenda would have had that effect.
The website appeared to have no requirement that actual names, addresses, phone numbers or email addresses be used in order to send the automated message.
Supervisor Horsley said his office had received about 350 of the auto-generated emails by June 27.
The work plan
Mr. Porter, the county public works director, said that within the next six months, the county wants consultants Hughes Aerospace to look at new flight paths "that minimize flights over residential neighborhoods" for all aircraft, even under conditions that require instrument flights, such as fog or rain.
Within six months, the county also wants to: develop new procedures that could minimize noisy arrivals and departures; expand voluntary noise procedures for helicopters (which residents have also been complaining about); hire the communications specialist and put the tracking system into place; and come up with incentives for pilots who comply with a voluntary curfew.
It could take more than a year, however, to get FAA approval of new flight paths, Mr. Porter said.
'A tortuous process'
"In my experience, working with the FAA is a tortuous process," said Supervisor David Canepa, who previously served on the San Francisco International Airport Roundtable working on SFO-related noise issues.
Mr. Canepa predicted it could be two or three years before new routes could be approved, but Mr. Porter said the county hopes to "fast track" the proposals and get FAA authorization within 18 months.
The county is also considering charging landing fees on charter operators (which include Surf Air) and purchasing mobile noise monitors that could be placed in residents' yards, Mr. Porter said.
The new communications specialist will help relieve other county employees who have been dealing with the complaints about Surf Air.
"We haves been overwhelmed with complaints," Mr. Porter said.
One issue the consultants examining new routes for the airport will have to consider is the complaints that have been made about Surf Air from residents of Sunnyvale and Cupertino.
When Surf Air uses an alternative route that takes it over the Bay, avoiding most Midpeninsula homes, flights go over parts of Sunnyvale and Cupertino.
The flights are at between 3,500 and 4,000 feet in altitude when they pass over those communities, while they are about 1,200 feet when they pass over Menlo Park, Deputy Director of Airports Rochelle Kiner said.
The new flight tracking system should help the airport quickly know exactly which flights and operators are responsible for noise complaints.
How many flights?
Ms. Kiner said Surf Air has 19 round trips on weekdays, but Surf Air spokeswoman Angela Vargo said in a press release on June 27 that the airline has 22 round trips on weekdays.
On June 29, however, Ms. Vargo provided July flight numbers for the San Carlos Airport. She said Surf Air will have 20 round trips each weekday, five on Saturday and nine on Sunday, for a total of 114 round trips (or 228 flights) each week.
Ms. Vargo said additional flights will be added "based on demand."
She said the earliest scheduled departure from San Carlos is at 6 a.m. and the latest arrival is at 10 p.m.
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