Prodded for months by three members of Congress and an increasingly organized group of Peninsula and Santa Cruz County residents, the Federal Aviation Administration finally announced this week it was reviewing and reconsidering new flight policies and procedures that are generating unprecedented noise complaints from local residents.
The FAA's initiative, announced Monday not by the agency but by Reps. Anna Eshoo, Sam Farr and Jackie Speier, is the most encouraging news yet that protests over the last few months by citizens, local and county officials and the three congresspersons may be getting heard by Washington aviation regulators.
And with lawsuits filed in Phoenix and by a group of Portola Valley residents, with more sure to come elsewhere, the FAA may finally be realizing it has created a mess out of a new system designed to streamline and modernize commercial aircraft arrival and departure flight paths and procedures at major U.S. airports.
As we commented last week, applying direct political pressure on the FAA is much more likely to result in quicker positive changes than any long-shot legislative solution in a dysfunctional Congress.
While we are happy to finally see some concrete movement from the FAA, we are concerned that the agency's initiative comes in the form of an unsigned, unattributed summary that does not even identify it as being a statement of the agency.
It fails to identify a single FAA official who is accountable for the initiative nor even a contact person for more information. And after each item to be studied or evaluated, the summary states that work began seven weeks ago, on Oct. 2, and shows a completion date of "TBD."
According the press release issued by Eshoo, Farr and Speier, the FAA "authored" the initiative and Speier is quoted as stating that "for the first time in many years, (the FAA) has committed to studying ideas submitted by the affected communities." She called the initiative a "compilation of the ideas that were offered by the public" at recent meetings and said, "Some of these ideas may be deemed workable by the FAA and some may not."
Indeed, the document, which states it was "compiled" at the request of Eshoo, Farr and Speier, reads more like a laundry list of possible actions rather than a focused strategy. It is full of technical and bureaucratic jargon ("The FAA will conduct a detailed analysis to include preliminary feasibility from a procedures/criteria perspective and fly-ability from an aircraft perspective. Procedures will be analyzed, modeled and flown in flight simulators").
According to the document, the FAA has agreed to take a fresh look at the new "NextGen" procedures and assess whether they can be modified to increase inbound aircraft altitudes, move flight paths to over water where possible, shift noisy aircraft speed changes to over the bay, change or add new "waypoints" to distribute air traffic over a larger area, change late-night flight patterns and review cargo operations. It also acknowledges the value of obtaining more community input, something severely lacking in the lead up to the implementation of the new system.
The "initiative" is progress toward achieving needed improvements to the current situation, and we hope it reflects a genuine changed attitude on the part of the FAA. However, without any timeline for completion nor any FAA official identified as the person responsible for its execution, we are concerned that it may be designed more to quiet the public and congressional outcry than an acknowledgement that mistakes have been made and changes are needed.
The FAA's document goes out of its way to make it appear that addressing the noise problems with aircraft arrivals involves a complex review and analysis of the entire new system, when those who are familiar with the new technologies suggest the fixes are not nearly so complicated and primarily involve some common sense adjustments to increase altitudes of planes when they cross the Peninsula (to levels they were previously using) and the implementation of more varied traffic lanes so the same area (currently Palo Alto) is not getting a disproportionate number of flights crossing over it.
A plan with no timetable or deadlines can't be trusted or relied upon, as Eshoo, Farr and Speier surely know. We hope and assume they will continue to keep behind-the-scenes pressure on the FAA and urge concerned citizens to not be lulled into quieting their protests or suspending the filing of noise complaints.