When Amy Christel moved from Barron Park to her new Midtown Palo Alto home last summer, she welcomed the time she could spend outdoors in her garden. But the roar of low-flying commercial aircraft has her running for cover, she said.
"I can't tell you the number of times I've rushed from the garden. The planes are flying so low I can read the number on the tail. My perception was, 'Oh my God, we bought a house under the air-traffic path,'" she said.
Christel initially wondered if she was only noticing the air noise because she was spending more time outdoors. But even the birds have changed their activity, she said.
"They fly away; they seek shelter. That's the impulse I have too," she said this week.
Palo Alto residents such as Christel are starting to complain to San Francisco International Airport since the Federal Aviation Administration booted up its NextGen program in March. The new flight rules force aircraft to travel within a narrow corridor to free up airspace for future traffic growth.
The U.S. Congress mandated the FAA to revise flight areas to make room for commercial drones and military use, and to prepare for an overall increase in commercial air traffic. Some detractors of the plan have called the paths in which commercial planes now fly "superhighways."
Pilots are also instructed to use a continuous-descent pattern -- coming down diagonally -- as opposed to a descent in steps. That causes the engines to throttle back to reduce speed more rapidly, which increases noise, members of Palo Alto's [Skyposse http://www.skypossepaloalto.org/ Sky Posse anti-airplane-noise group, said.
The problem has become so pervasive that some members of Congress, including Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier, formed the Quiet Skies Caucus to address the issue.
Three major flight paths cross over Palo Alto, according to SFO. Christel said that data she and her husband have collected from San Francisco International Airport show that more than 100 flights a day travel less than three minutes apart within a 2-mile swath of their house.
Looking at data during a 24-hour period for three Thursdays in October 2014 and February and April 2015, Christel and her husband, a scientist, discovered the traffic over Midtown had increased 96 percent for flights traveling at 3,000 to 5,000 feet altitude, while the highest altitude flights of 5,000 to 6,000 feet decreased by 40 percent.
"They've brought the planes down lower," she said.
The noise problem isn't limited to Midtown. Cheryl Lilienstein of Barron Park said there is more noise since NextGen kicked in on March 5.
"We've lived here in Barron Park over 20 years and I remember plane noise being intermittently but minimally distracting, but the frequency and intensity has really changed.
She said that her son, who is now 35 and recently returned for a visit, initially dismissed her complaints.
"The next day he came to me and said, 'I know what you are talking about now! I was outside in the evening yesterday trying to have a conversation and every 30 seconds we had to stop talking because we couldn't hear each other!'" she said in an email.
Tiffany Pan, a Crescent Park resident, said she has definitely noticed the difference, and she has complained to SFO. She called the airport at midnight, after planes came roaring low overhead. The flights often awaken her at 5 a.m., she said.
"I have a one-story house. Before, I occasionally could hear it, but now it is consistently coming by one by one. We have no control," she said.
Xu Jie, who lives near San Antonio Road, said he fears what the summer will bring when it is too hot to keep windows and doors closed.
"How can we get sleep? This is an issue that affects everyone's rights," he said.
Some neighborhood associations are using social media to inform residents of ways to complain. Sky Posse has two links for filing complaints with SFO and offers information on the group's efforts, on legislation and on how to organize. Old Palo Alto, Midtown and Barron Park associations are spreading the news by email, and residents using the social-media website Nextdoor sent out links on how to complain to 12 neighborhoods.
Barron Park resident Alison Raleigh, a member of Sky Posse, said she has lodged close to 100 complaints to SFO regarding excessive noise over the course of a single weekend.
SFO spokesman Doug Yakel said the airport is aware of the shift in flight patterns that has occurred with the implementation of the "SERFR1" NextGen approach.
"But as this pattern first began in March 2015, it may not correlate very highly to the stats (Christel mentions). More likely is that it is a result of several factors under review, including increased air service at San Carlos Airport as well as vectoring (direction by air traffic control) of traffic into SFO.
"We're actively involved in the Palo Alto concerns and have attended Palo Alto City Council meetings to ensure we're hearing directly from the community. We also continue to work with airlines at SFO and the FAA to review these concerns," he said in an email.
Jon Zwieg, a member of Sky Posse, said the group is actively pursuing a variety of approaches to get the FAA to listen. The group is looking to enlist Reps. Eshoo and Sam Farr (D-Central Coast) to write a congressional rider into the Appropriations Act regarding airplane-noise reductions.
Former Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Phoenix) wrote and placed such a rider into the 2015 appropriations bill, which directs the FAA to quickly identify mitigations and to provide the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations with a progress report on the measures within 90 days of the act's enactment.
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) secured language in the fiscal year 2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development funding bill mandating the FAA to develop short- and long-term measures to address the excessive airplane noise experienced by local communities around O'Hare International Airport. The bill passed the House Appropriations Committee this month and will now head to the full House of Representatives for a vote, according to a press release issued by his office. The rider would also require an FAA report within 90 days.
Sky Posse and other groups have called for a change in the 65-decibel metric used by the FAA to determine acceptable airplane noise. In April, the Office of Management and Budget green-lighted a study to see if the metric should be changed to address the increased noise pollution. Sixty-five decibels has been the standard since the 1970s when air-traffic volume was far lower than it is today, Quigley's office noted in it announcement.
Eshoo's office could not immediately be reached regarding sponsoring a rider due to the Memorial Day holiday.