In a series of open meetings throughout spring and summer, the Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals met with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials to consider its response to the FAA's "Initiative to Address Noise Concerns of Santa Cruz/Santa Clara/San Mateo/San Francisco Counties."
The Select Committee consists of local elected officials from three counties with cities that are affected by the recent explosion of aircraft noise and pollution. I'm grateful to Rep. Anna Eshoo who, together with Reps. Sam Farr and Jackie Speier, formed this committee. The committee's excellent chair is Supervisor Joe Simitian. While Palo Alto does not have a voting member on the committee, Vice Mayor Greg Scharff serves as a non-voting alternate.
Despite all this hopeful activity, the FAA has not yet announced any proposals that will alleviate the noise burden for Palo Alto or surrounding communities. The citizens' group Sky Posse Palo Alto and the city of Palo Alto have submitted design principles, but the FAA has not included them in any public announcement. It is time for an aviation noise recap and another call to action.
Last summer I wrote a Weekly opinion piece about the rising tide of harmful aviation noise over Palo Alto due to gradual route shifting and the March 2015 implementation of a new SFO arrival route called SERFR One. This route, which has polluted all communities living under its noisy, toxic shadow, uses the FAA's new NextGen precision navigation procedures. These procedures concentrate flight routes into narrow pathways at low altitudes, resulting in sacrificial noise corridors. The FAA claims that these changes resulted in "net noise reduction," which is ironic given that complaints to SFO went from 449 in June 2014 to 320,000 in June 2016.
Having spent almost my whole adult life as a teacher librarian advocating for literacy issues, aviation politics presented a new research challenge. However, I was determined to try to find a pathway toward a solution. Students I worked with were losing sleep. New aircraft noise now combined with existing train noise disturbing the quiet in our new classrooms and campus. I talked to multiple groups of distraught longtime residents who no longer found solace in their homes. Their complaints were backed up by extensive research documenting the detrimental effects of concentrated aircraft noise on sleep, student learning, and cardiac health.
I discovered a familiar tale of an overburdened and underfunded federal agency that is heavily influenced by the industry it is charged to regulate. The FAA's two missions are safety and efficiency. At a recent Select Committee meeting the FAA representative stated, "We do not design for noise." While the agency acknowledges its obligation to protect the health of people living under flight pathways, noise reduction becomes a serious consideration only in areas immediately adjacent to the airport runway.
Another complicating factor is that the Environmental Protection Agency has no role in regulating aviation noise because its Office of Noise Abatement and Control was defunded during the Reagan administration. Local authorities were supposed to take over noise enforcement, but the irony is that cities and counties have no authority over planes in the air. The FAA (with considerable input from industry and virtually none from environmental groups) rules the skies.
Nowhere is this undue influence illustrated more than how the FAA measures noise impacts. Aviation interests fully support the FAA's continued use of decades-old noise-averaging measures that do not reflect the harm caused by the frequent onslaught of hundreds of planes a day flying at an altitude between 3,000 and 5,000 feet over residential neighborhoods. The FAA uses noise modeling to forecast impacts when planning new routes, but no actual noise measurements are taken on the ground either before or after new route implementation.
So what does this mean for our current situation? We, as individual citizens, must continue to advocate for our communities and demand that our elected representatives persuade the FAA to fix the problem it created. We simply must use all means possible to pressure Congress to compel the FAA to prioritize public health concerns over the efficiency demands of the airlines when designing airline routes. It is unacceptable to design flight routes that leave a swath of noise and emissions filth over our cities, especially when we are fortunate to have a huge body of water nearby that could be used as the guiding path to SFO.
Citizen advocacy has accomplished a tremendous amount so far. Our City Council has declared airplane noise pollution to be an important problem and has devoted resources to tackling the issue, including engaging aviation consultants. Our congressional representatives have been successful in organizing a regional committee and persuading the FAA to participate. Supervisor Simitian and his staff have devoted countless hours working with the community, the FAA and elected officials.
Unfortunately, the FAA has yet to announce any sort of solution that will relieve the Midpeninsula. The agency wants to concentrate flights rather than disperse them. There is no mention of a noise-abating up-the-bay approach. We have not seen any proposal from the FAA that would use other navigational waypoints instead of MENLO (where three SFO arrival routes converge at a 4,000-foot altitude over a residential area near the intersection of 101 and Willow Road). We have heard nothing about rebalancing the east and west legs of approaches from the north to direct flights over the bay rather than our homes and schools.
Solutions that could help all citizens, not just Palo Alto, exist. Please have a look at the recommendations listed in City Manager James Keene's letter of July 7, 2016. If you agree, please let Supervisor Simitian and Rep. Eshoo know that you would like the Select Committee to consider these recommendations carefully.
Continue to register complaints with the SFO Noise Abatement Office and through the website stop.jetnoise.net. Stay informed by attending the Select Committee meetings, which take place at Palo Alto City Hall twice a month until November. (See the schedule at eshoo.house.gov.)
We must let the Select Committee and the FAA know that we need solutions that will help Palo Alto and the Midpeninsula. If we continue to advocate for cleaner air and quieter skies, there might be better news next year.