Hundreds if not thousands of airplanes from San Francisco International Airport pass over Palo Alto's residential neighborhoods on a daily basis. Now a study is proving just how impactful those flights can be.
City of Palo Alto's consultants, Freytag & Associates, presented a route analysis and noise assessment report to more than 100 residents at Cubberley Community Center on Wednesday night, confirming what local residents' group Sky Posse has maintained all along: that the number of flights has increased, the flight pattern has shifted more to the south over Palo Alto, and the decibel level has risen significantly.
The consultants will present the study on June 29 to the FAA Select Committee, a newly formed body that includes elected leaders from Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. The committee will discuss a proposal by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to lessen the noise.
City of Palo Alto officials are trying to find solutions that will work for all local cities and counties and sent a letter to the FAA on March 2 requesting the formation of a task force in addition to the Select Committee. The task force, made up of local government officials and staff from the aviation agencies, would make recommendations to the Select Committee and the San Mateo County-based SFO Roundtable. The FAA is looking to the Select Committee for proposals for changes to flight paths and altitude.
In April 2015, the FAA created a program to streamline flight efficiency throughout the nation, called NextGen. But since its implementation, communities have complained that noise levels and airplane frequency have increased dramatically, creating a superhighway in the sky over a narrower band.
In response to a surge of complaints, the FAA agreed to form the Select Committee, which is chaired by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian. It also released last month its preliminary "feasibility study," which considers flight procedures and adjustments to flight speeds and altitudes.
Though the technical report is still being reviewed by elected officials, their consultants and other area stakeholders, some of its early conclusions are unlikely to please the critics. For example, the study indicates that it would not be feasible to raise the flight altitude at the nearby MENLO waypoint to 5,000 feet because doing so would create "too steep a descent gradient." The FAA also deemed that it would not be feasible to disperse flight tracks over a wider range, noting in the study that having more parallel routes "may be a source of confusion and could be unsafe."
Palo Alto's consultants are still evaluating the FAA's initial report, but on May 23, City Manager James Keene expressed some dismay at both the report's early conclusions and the fact that they were reached without any real outreach to the wider community.
"The fact that it appears in advance of the significant engagement process that we're launching into has generated a lot of understandable concern," Keene told the council.
The concern was evident at Wednesday night's meeting. Palo Alto resident Deanna Dickman said that noise over her home on the 900 block of Bryant Street has affected her health to the point that she is renting a house in Carmel to get away.
"Last July I came home from vacation and said, 'Is there a mistake?' I looked up and the belly of the plane is over our house at 3,000 feet. I counted 82 planes," she recalled. "I cannot be out on our deck. There are 100 planes a day, sometimes every two minutes. I cannot live in my house. I've lost my home," she said.
She and her spouse plan to stay in Carmel for a year, after which they hope the noise problem will be resolved and they can return to their home. But if not, they will have to sell their house, she said.
Consultant Jack Freytag said his company developed software to analyze SFO flight-arrival data obtained by Sky Posse. They also used FAA modeling programs to help create separate flight-track and noise-track assessments. Based on a comparison of data from July 10, 2008, and July 9, 2015, one of the busiest times of the year, their data confirmed the shift of flights, increased frequency directly over Palo Alto, and increase in noise levels.
"The FAA cares about increases in noise in terms of DNL (Day Night Average Level, the average noise over the course of a day)," consultant Randy Waldeck said, noting that the agency is concerned about significant impacts caused by large changes in levels. "They have to listen."
But Palo Alto's noise level, although significantly increased, is just at or below 45 decibels, the FAA threshold.
The consultants' analysis also showed that about half of the flights under the NextGen plan are stacked more closely than before, creating congestion that forces air-traffic controllers to put them in a holding pattern. That increases air emissions, noise and delays -- the exact problems that NextGen was designed to prevent, the consultants said.
The consultants will recommend that the FAA do more air-traffic-control coordination, organize incoming flights 200 to 300 miles farther out and stage departure times to prevent a backlog of flights.
The city is also proposing a number of flight-path changes as well as the creation of a different waypoint, a point used to help aircraft locate invisible routing paths. Currently one is at the Menlo Park/Palo Alto border. Moving the waypoint south of the San Francisco Bay would put the planes over the full length of the water at much higher altitudes.
Another proposed change would aim to bring planes in from the west at a higher elevation. It would also reduce the need to have planes in holding patterns at low altitudes. The carrot for the FAA in this proposal would be improved fuel efficiency, the consultants said.
The city is also recommending that the FAA review nighttime flights, as these have been among the most concerning to residents whose sleep is being disturbed. The consultants will also be conducting sleep interference, classroom disruption and property valuation studies, they said.
Palo Alto's study, the first and only one that will be presented to the FAA Select Committee on June 26, created a readily available tool utilizing the FAA's own modeling program. Noise impacts can now be objectively estimated for any changes by the FAA, Jennifer Landesmann, a Sky Posse member, said.
"We can measure relative impacts before any changes are signed off on as helpful or not," she stated in an email.
The noise evaluation conducted by the consultants "so far also demonstrates that even with the FAA's ... metrics, the noise levels in Palo Alto have almost hit, or are at the doorstep of 'significant impact,'" a term the FAA uses and listens to, she added.
But Landesmann said that much more work must be done. The FAA Select Committee is comprised of local groups from the region, and how they view a current FAA proposal for changes could have significant detrimental impacts for Palo Alto. If the rest of the regional committee members buy in on the FAA plan, the agency could take the position that it is in compliance with the community's wishes, she said. It would be hard for Palo Alto to make an argument against it on its own.
The June 29 Select Committee meeting is open to the public and will take place at 6 p.m. at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.