Four Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) representatives met with about 30 people at Palo Alto City Hall Friday about noise issues, which residents say have increased dramatically since the agency introduced new flight paths over the Bay Area. The new NextGen aviation program is designed to modernize U.S. airspace, prepare for future increased air traffic and reduce fuel consumption.
In response to her constituents' concerns, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo convened the meeting with the FAA to allow the federal officials to understand the magnitude of the problem over Bay Area skies. The meeting was closed to the general public and the media.
"The FAA clearly knows something has changed dramatically," Eshoo said. "There's an acknowledgement of what the issues are. The next challenge is to identify with the FAA what are the short-term issues to be addressed."
FAA officials said the meeting was an excellent exchange of information.
"We felt we got a fairly good understanding from a personal level of why there is concern," said Glen Martin, Western-Pacific Region regional administrator for the FAA.
"There was a lot of discussion on the measurement of impacts and where current standards don't address the impacts. We will look into research to make changes to understand where that (gap) is," he said.
Noise complaints throughout the Bay Area have jumped during the past year. San Francisco International Airport's Noise Abatement office received about 14,000 noise complaints last year. In June 2015, they received about 16,000 and this July will exceed that number, officials said at the meeting, according to attendee David Fleck of residents' group Calm the Skies.
Palo Alto residents say they bear the brunt of the problem. Three flight paths from San Francisco International Airport cross directly above the city.
Martin said FAA officials plan to address the noise through short-term and longer-term changes. One possible shorter-term change might be to alter flights between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., he said.
"We can look at rates (of flights) and altitude, review those, and make changes to those," Martin said.
In the longer term, the FAA could look at flight routes, he said, but that is a more complex process. Officials had not yet identified which ideas they might try to implement in the short or long term but they were taking back all of the ideas and information for review.
"Right now we're working closely with Congress," Martin said. "We are having meetings that may include additional public meetings in the next couple of months to produce those (short term and long term) buckets."
The City of Palo Alto is considering funding a study that would look at flight data to analyze changes that have taken place since NextGen. The city might, alternatively, analyze flight traffic patterns and propose new routes, Councilman Tom Dubois said.
The possible study would go before the Policy and Services Committee for consideration and then to the City Council. The city is working to get other local governments to share the costs, Dubois said. If the city does press forward, Martin said FAA is open to looking at the study and to suggest parameters so that it would have outcomes the FAA would see as relevant.
Asked about complaints that have affected some cities more than others, such as flights by turbo-propeller planes by the air-shuttle company Surf Air, Martin said it was clear that the problem is much larger than one airline or airport.
The meeting largely focused on noise out of SFO, but San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley reportedly pressed the issue of Surf Air, and Martin agreed to a separate meeting with local FAA representatives present to specifically address that airline company. Horsley agreed to organize that meeting with Martin.
Members of Sky Posse, the Palo Alto-based citizens' group working to reduce airplane noise levels, said the meeting with FAA was productive.
"Congresswoman Eshoo was brilliant at working with everybody," said member Stewart Carl. "She put a lot of pressure on FAA to come back with some concrete plans. I felt it was productive. There were lots of good ideas and suggestions."
FAA officials did not comment on individual solutions, he added.
Sky Posse member Jim Herriot said having a facilitator at the meeting helped to keep the discussion moving forward.
"He was able to distill the right tones. Instead of handing us clichés, they wanted to hear personal testimony," Herriot said.
Palo Alto's representatives included Mayor Karen Holman, Councilmen Dubois and Eric Filseth, Assistant City Manager Ed Shikada and Senior Management Analyst Khashayar Alaee.
Holman appeared to be fairly satisfied with this first meeting, but she did not have illusions of a quick solution.
"There were some indications of where we can collaborate with the FAA and (where) we can work toward some progressive solutions. What has to happen is they have to address real impacts on the ground -- on physical and emotional well being," she said.
Dubois said the meeting was encouraging. "The FAA offered to work with our staff so as to not waste time and money (on data) that the FAA is going to ignore," he said.
Alternate flight routes, a major demand among residents and government officials, are a complex matter. There is a process for proposing new routes, and FAA officials said they would help propose the new routes in the right way, he said.
FAA's number one concern is safety, he said. Air traffic and fuel efficiency, two of the major objectives outlined in the 2012 Reauthorization Act that launched NextGen, would be the biggest challenges to changing flight paths.
If these flights could be moved they would probably go over the ocean, and those longer routes would negatively affect some of the Act's objectives.
"The tradeoff is the impact on the environment noise vs. fuel costs," Dubois said.
Some attendees came away with a sense that the problem has much policy-related complexity.
"I learned that the problem is policy driven," Los Altos City Councilman Jean Mordo said, "and will require much more change at the congressional level. On some levels, it is a national and international problem."
But Eshoo thinks new legislation won't be necessary to fix the problems.
"I believe we can work within the jurisdictions and the statutes. We don't need to change the laws. I believe the FAA can implement changes that will bring relief regionally," she said.
The Bay Area could serve as a model for resolving the airplane noise issues that are plaguing metropolitan areas throughout the country, she said, but both Eshoo and Martin stressed that doesn't mean that "one size fits all."
From Eshoo's perspective, there is a potential to demonstrate that a partnership between the FAA and regions within the various metroplexes around the country can work. That hasn't been the case in some areas, such as Phoenix, which is now suing the FAA over the airplane noise.
FAA has made some changes in some of the other metroplexes, but Martin backed away from saying that there will be solutions.
"Solutions tend to say that people are satisfied. We've made adjustments when we've found procedures to make adjustments," he said.
Eshoo and FAA officials also attended a meeting in Santa Cruz. FAA will hold a separate meeting in Rep. Jackie Speier's district in San Mateo County next month.
Eshoo is conducting a survey from residents on airplane noise that she will give to the FAA. The survey can be taken here.