Spurred by outrage over airplane noise from residents of Palo Alto and surrounding communities, the Federal Aviation Administration has agreed to the formation of a new committee aimed at giving critics a louder voice in future negotiations over plane routes and flight altitudes.
The FAA discussed the new committee at a Monday meeting in Los Altos, which featured elected leaders from Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and members of the grassroots group Sky Posse, which has been leading the local effort to abate airplane noise.
The issue became urgent in the past year, as the FAA has implemented its Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen) program in March 2015. The program concentrated flights along particular corridors, creating what some residents have described as "super highways" over their heads.
The creation of the new group, known as the FAA Select Committee, is the first substantive action that the FAA has agreed to undertake since November, when it agreed to take a fresh look at flight speeds, altitudes and waypoint locations as part of a new "three-phased initiative."
While it remains to be seen whether the group will wield any actual influence over the federal agency, its creation will at the very least give Palo Alto something the city has been coveting for well over a year: a seat at a regional table.
The city had attempted in 2014 to join the SFO Community Roundtable, a coalition of stakeholders from San Francisco and San Mateo County cities that work on issues involving San Francisco Airport, but its request for membership was denied by the group.
Khashayar Alaee, senior management analyst in the city manager's office, discussed the latest updates from the FAA at a Tuesday community meeting, which brought about 50 people to Palo Alto City Hall. The new committee, Alaee said, will have 12 members, four from each of the three congressional districts in the area (the districts currently represented by Anna Eshoo, Sam Farr and Jackie Speier). Members will be picked by each Congressional office.
Alaee said the idea for the group came from Eshoo, who wanted to give the Peninsula a new forum for discussing airport concerns. He called the formation of the group "a big win."
"As of now, really the only group that has influence into the airport and the FAA is the SFO Community Roundtable and none of the cities in the Santa Clara County and Santa Cruz County have representations on that," Alaee said. "For the FAA to recognize this committee and the three congressional offices to agree to it is a great achievement."
Ian Gregor, the FAA's public affairs manager for the Pacific Division, said the new committee will focus mainly on issues beyond the scope of the SFO Roundtable, which will review and comment on areas at and near the airport.
Gregor said the SFO Roundtable will provide administrative support for the new group.
Alaee also said that FAA officials indicated Monday that the agency's feasibility study for potential changes to NextGen routes will be out in six weeks.
"Once it's out, the community will be able to provide feedback on it through the FAA Select Committee," Alaee said. "That's where the decision-making will be made, and that recommendation will be made to the Congressional representatives."
Though he lauded the FAA for creating the new group, many residents in attendance voiced skepticism. Some complained about the FAA's failure to notify anyone in advance about the committee's creation or to seek input.
Jennifer Landesmann, a Sky Posse member who attended the Monday meeting in Los Altos, said on Tuesday that criticism from communities about NextGen have put pressure on the federal administration to improve its community-outreach practices.
"The FAA has failed miserably with the implementation of NextGen," Landesmann said. "They are on the hot seat for failing to deal with the communities in an appropriate way. The Bay Area is supposedly going to be an example on how to deal with communities. If they fail us, they will once again be on the hot seat."
Other residents offered personal anecdotes about loud flights soaring over their homes at all hours of the day and night. One Crescent Park resident said that just that morning, when she was out her garden, loud planes were passing over head every two to three minutes. Another spoke of the midnight and 1:30 a.m. flights that pass over her house. A third complained about a "real degradation of the quality of life because of the noise."
Resident Mark Shull said the main problem that residents have with NextGen is that planes "fly over the same houses every single time."
"That is new as of March last year," Shull said. "And it's not just one route, which cities around the country are complaining about, it is three converging in one place. And there's almost no place in the country that has as much convergence as we do."
Now, residents hope the new FAA committee and the city's recent actions to address the rising noise levels, will help them address the new problem. Members of Sky Posse have been gathering data about the elevated noise levels for the past year and lobbying the city to take action on the issue. Their work has paid off, with the city recently hiring the consulting group Freytag & Associates to review FAA's work and to conduct an analysis quantifying the increase in air traffic.
Alaee said that the firm will begin doing the data analysis on Palo Alto's flight patterns and noise levels in the coming weeks, as well as providing consulting services to the city on the FAA's plans. Later, the group will also be asked to consider the impacts of the changing flight patterns on local property assessments, classroom disruptions and sleep interference.
Alaee also said the city will try to secure a seat on the new FAA Select Committee, whose members will be selected by Thursday. The city, he noted, has already invested significant staff and financial resources in the issue. In addition to the two council members (Karen Holman and Greg Schmid) who attended the Tuesday update, two others (Mayor Pat Burt and Vice Mayor Greg Scharff) were scheduled to meet FAA officials on Tuesday afternoon in Washington, D.C., where they are attending the annual meeting of the National League of Cities.