Surf Air representatives say they have identified an alternative flight path that would put their planes, and the noise of their turboprop engines, over the Bay during much of their approach to the San Carlos Airport whenever they have clear visibility.
If all goes well, they say, the new approach could be in regular operation by the end of May.
Jim Sullivan, Surf Air's senior vice president of operations, showed the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors a map with a route that would take Surf Air planes from Moffett Field over the Bay, past the Dumbarton Bridge and then back to the San Carlos Airport over a cement plant.
The supervisors received an update at their Tuesday, April 26, meeting from the county's public works director, Jim Porter, on what the county is calling the "San Carlos Airport Aircraft Disturbance Study," which the supervisors approved in March.
Surf Air began using the San Carlos Airport in June 2013, and complaints about noise from the turboprop planes the airline uses began flooding in soon after.
Sullivan said the airline has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration's Northern California air traffic control branch, known as Norcal TRACON. They are trying to find a way to move the commuter airline's planes away from the neighborhoods where residents say the noise has been making their lives miserable.
"I really do believe this is the meaningful relief that we've all been looking for," Sullivan said on Tuesday before catching a Surf Air plane from the San Carlos Airport back to work at Surf Air's Santa Monica headquarters.
He said he personally flew the Bay approach last week and believes it will work. He plans to have Surf Air's "check pilots," the pilots who train other pilots, fly the approach 25 times, starting immediately, when they fly into San Carlos.
"By having multiple pilots look at it multiple times" any problems can be found and the route modified, he said.
Surf Air will then train all its pilots to use the approach, and Norcal TRACON will inform the control towers in all the local airports, including Palo Alto, Moffett Field, San Jose, San Francisco and San Carlos, about the new approach, Sullivan said.
The route won't provide complete relief to those who live under the current flight path because, Sullivan said, it can only be used under Visual Flight Rules (VFR) conditions. That means that if pilots can't see the airport from the point at which they start the approach, which is near Sunnyvale, the current GPS approach will continue to be used, he said. Rainy or foggy days can limit that visibility.
San Carlos Airport Assistant Airport Manager Chris St. Peter looked at weather records for the last year at the airport and said that in 2015 slightly more than 86 percent of the time aircraft would have been able to arrive the airport using only a visual approach.
Porter said the county has hired three consultants, including an aviation consultant, an aviation noise consultant and a polling firm.
"We're looking at policies and procedures," he said, including surveying what other general aviation airports do.
"We're also potentially looking at landing fees," he said, including software to help with that process. He said the county is also examining incentives for those who follow the airport's voluntary noise abatement rules.
He said a public meeting will be scheduled in the near future to give residents a chance to talk about how they are affected by the airport operations, and local residents will also be surveyed. A set of recommendations are scheduled to come back to the supervisors in June.
"We are working diligently to make that schedule," Porter said.
Atherton City Councilman Mike Lempres asked the county to get residents more involved in the process.
"The residents of Atherton and North Fair Oaks have not yet been consulted in this process," he said. And despite Sullivan's assertion that Surf Air had begun flying most of its planes over U.S. Highway 101 on April 12, Lempres said residents "have not noticed any change."
Other speakers said that since Surf Air is working to solve the problem on its own, the county should halt the study.
"We ask that you postpone further action or expenditure" until the planned changes are put in place, said Carol Ford, of the airport's pilots' association.
But supervisors said they want the study to continue as scheduled.
"We need to hear from the public," Supervisor Adrienne Tissier saod. "Are they not hearing the noise anymore? Are the changes "really working for them?"
"This isn't to punish the pilots or the people at the airport," she added.
Supervisor Dave Pine agreed, saying, "It's important we keep this study going."
Pine, too, emphasized that the study is not aimed at the majority of the airport's users.
"The impetus of this has been commercial aircraft, primarily Surf Air," he said.
After the meeting Lempres praised the county and others who have become involved in working to resolve noise issues, especially congressional representatives Anna Eshoo and Jackie Speier.
However, he said, "it's hard for me to judge whether anything is being done or not. They continue to have a process that does not involve the residents. Hopefully we're going to be part of the process going forward."
North Fair Oaks resident and attorney Adam Ullman, who has been researching the issue for years, said he is happy "to finally see the county supervisors taking proactive steps to fulfill their legal obligations to mitigate the continuous and pervasive noise nuisance from aircraft over our community."
"Airplanes louder than 757s, 777s and 787s should never have been allowed to be as low as a thousand feet over our homes and schools," he said.
Sullivan said he believes the new Bay approach "really captures all the concerns of the community and leaders of the community, and the airport."
"We are excited that the group has finally come together and rolled up their sleeves and said how do we fix this," he said.
Note: San Carlos Airport Manager Gretchen Kelly is analyzing a year of weather data for the airport to provide an accurate analysis of how much of the time the airport operated under visual flight rules. This story will be updated as soon as that information is available.