This summer I became a reluctant advocate for quiet skies. I say reluctant because I am a teacher-librarian, not a rabble-rouser. I've been busy raising a family in Palo Alto for the past 23 years, and I've never considered addressing the City Council. I appreciate our local aviation heritage, and I fly to visit family and friends.
So why am I campaigning for responsible aviation? The short answer is that Palo Alto is now plagued by a disproportionate level of aircraft noise severely diminishing our quality of life. The long answer is months of research that ultimately led to my decision to contact Sky Posse Palo Alto, a group of neighbors who are working toward decreasing low, loud and concentrated aviation noise.
My investigation began by contacting Bert Ganoung, the aircraft-noise-abatement manager at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). When Ganoung discovered where I lived he emitted a sympathetic sigh. Palo Alto is 20 miles distant from the airport, yet over the years air traffic has gradually shifted over our town, including three main approaches into SFO.
His office emailed a graphic to me showing Palo Alto cowering under what looks like a Los Angeles freeway interchange. I grew up in Los Angeles and thought I'd left the 405 far behind.
Adding to our misery, the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) new NextGen protocols direct arriving flights along rigid corridors at altitudes of lower than 5,000 feet. Arrival routes that were once dispersed high above many Peninsula communities now converge into high-decibel, low-altitude "superhighways" directly over our heads.
A Sky Posse Palo Alto (SPPA) analysis of data secured by a Freedom of Information Act request confirms these gradual shifts in flight patterns. SPPA obtained 10 years of flight track data from the FAA and compared total flight growth into SFO to flight growth over Palo Alto. Among other comparisons, they took a snapshot of two months of data from July 2006 and July 2014. Overall, total arrival traffic at SFO increased by 28 percent, while lower altitude arrival traffic over Palo Alto increased a whopping 76 percent.
I've heard our mounting noise problem compared to boiling frogs. Frogs will jump into a cool pan of water and stay there even as the heat gradually rises. They don't realize they are in trouble until it's too late.
This is not the first time Palo Alto has sought regional solutions to aircraft noise and been stonewalled. The SFO Roundtable is "a voluntary committee to address community noise impacts from aircraft operations at San Francisco International Airport (SFO)." The FAA looks to the SFO Roundtable as a way for communities to address noise abatement, and the SFO Roundtable is structured to influence routing and procedures decisions with the FAA. City Council minutes show that Palo Alto was denied membership to this important body three times, twice in the 1990s and most recently last October, because the Roundtable wants to limit its voting membership to San Mateo County.
After sorting through these thorny regional issues, I called the FAA and described jets flying low overhead, sometimes 100 a day, resulting in missed sleep, disruptions at work and interrupted family time. My FAA contact denied there was a noise problem, offering as proof the FAA's computer modeling study done prior to the implementation of NextGen. In other words, FAA's flawed computer models know more about our reality than we do!
The FAA can't comment further because it is getting sued. Private citizens in Portola Valley and Woodside are suing on the basis that no full environmental-impact study was performed before starting NextGen in our area.
The hard truth is that the FAA has never bothered to measure our actual noise. Even if it did, we would not benefit because its noise harm test is a poor diagnostic for Palo Alto's pain. Briefly, the FAA calibrates harm by averaging noise over a 24-hour period, giving more weight to nighttime noise. Noise mitigation occurs when an area reaches the California Community Noise Equivalent Level (CNEL) of 65 decibels. The 24-hour average noise impact of all our Surf Air planes and 747s may not average 65 dBs, but each 70-80 decibel blast assaults our senses. By the time the bruise begins to fade we are hit again.
The strict way the FAA measures noise is an issue for the Congressional Quiet Skies Caucus. Luckily Rep. Anna Eshoo is a leading member. On July 24 at Palo Alto City Hall, Eshoo's office invited key FAA officials to a closed meeting with regional stakeholders. I understand that the FAA was presented with some solutions, such as raising flights to higher altitudes, applying curfews to protect sleep and using our wide Bay as a low approach instead of directing grinding aircraft down over our communities.
Unfortunately there is no immediate relief, so citizens should complain repeatedly to offending airports and to the FAA. Support Eshoo and county Supervisor Joe Simitian as they deal with an intractable FAA. Advocate for change by writing our local, state and national politicians, and sign the petition on the Sky Posse Palo Alto website. Palo Alto is planning to conduct a comprehensive study, and this information will be vital for our town's future.
For those of you who do not consider aircraft noise and pollution to be a problem, consider that your neighbors have a right to a good night's sleep and our school children require quiet classrooms and fresh air. We all pay dearly to live in this town, and our homes are an important investment.
There is more at stake here than any one individual voice. Groundlings, I'm calling on you to leave your reluctance behind and assert your rights! How else will our community learn to balance progress with peace?
Rachel Kellerman is a local educator who has lived in Palo Alto for 23 years.