Palo Alto should fund a $30,000 study of air-traffic noise over the city and propose alternative flight paths, a City Council committee unanimously recommended Tuesday night.
The study results would be used to try to sway the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to modify plans it has developed as part of its new NextGen flight system. Some local residents fear planned NextGen flight paths will send an intolerable number of aircraft directly over their homes -- and bring greater noise with them.
Three of four flight paths arriving to San Francisco International Airport currently converge over the city. Residents said the problem will soon get worse when the third and final phase of implementing NextGen narrows flight routes into a conga line in which planes will be spaced as close as 1 mile apart. That would create a near-steady stream of jet noise, according to members of Sky Posse, a local group advocating for changes to the FAA plan.
Sky Posse member Lee Crystal said that SFO-bound flights over Palo Alto are already up 350 percent since 2001.
In other states where NextGen has rolled out, residents have said the increased decibel levels and frequency of flights are damaging their well-being and way of life. The uproar has been such that the FAA is looking at revising the plan in some cities.
Northern California is the last part of the country scheduled for the roll-out, which must be completed by Sept. 30. The third and final phase of NextGen implementation is scheduled for March 5.
"There's an urgency. We're at a tipping point," said Jim Herriot, chief technology officer of an aviation company and a member of Sky Posse. "We're living under a perfect storm. Our health, livability, sleep and productivity are being affected, and it's getting worse."
Sky Posse representatives said that more flights should shift over the San Francisco Bay and come in at a higher altitude.
City Manager James Keene said Tuesday that at a minimum, the city should explore doing a study with the goal of being able to redirect flights over the bay. But he recommended a review of whether the study would be cost-effective in altering FAA plans.
Would the study, or any study, "really fly with the FAA?" he asked.
Sky Posse and SFO representatives said there is precedent. Bert Ganoung, manager of the SFO aircraft noise-abatement office, said that some other airports -- most notably Denver and Dallas -- have made radical changes.
Councilman Tom Dubois, one of the Policy and Services Committee members, pointed out that in California, the city of Newport Beach has successfully lobbied the FAA for flight-path changes at John Wayne Airport.
Convincing the FAA to modify routes could depend on developing a local collaboration with political clout. Palo Alto could leverage its federal lobbyist, Keene said. He and some council members will be in Washington, D.C., for the National League of Cities Congressional City Conference in March, and the air noise problem could be discussed, he added.
Palo Alto also has advocates in Congress. U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo is a member, along with more than 25 other representatives, of the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus, which is charged with advancing solutions that abate aircraft noise.
The city can also build a regional coalition, Keene said. Palo Alto already holds tri-cities meetings with Menlo Park and East Palo Alto on a number of issues. The city also plans to have tri-cities meetings with Mountain View and Sunnyvale. Keene said he would ask Menlo Park and East Palo Alto to invite Portola Valley, Atherton and Woodside to a meeting to discuss collaborating on the study.
Council members Tuesday agreed that any flight-path recommendations should not push the problem on another community.
"If the proposed route is raised higher (in altitude) everybody wins; if not, the problem will go over other communities," Councilman Marc Berman said.
Committee members voted unanimously in favor of five motions made by Councilman Pat Burt: to recommend the full council fund up to $30,000 for the study, contingent on staff review of the costs and the value of the study; direct staff to use its tri-cities meetings as a vehicle to measure the interest of surrounding cities and to reach out to other cities that are not in the tri-cities group; have the city's lobbyist in Washington, D.C., add aircraft noise as an elevated issue; recommend the council authorize the mayor to appoint a council representative as a liaison to community group Sky Posse and as a non-voting representative of the San Francisco International Airport Roundtable; and direct the city manager to continue to collaborate with Sky Posse.