FAA committee: Scrap existing flight path

Procedural changes, higher altitudes could help reduce local aircraft noise

A committee tasked with recommending ways to reduce airplane noise over the Midpeninsula voted last week in favor of a new flight path similar to one in place before March 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration changed it.

The Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals voted to recommend improvements but not to eliminate the FAA's NextGen system, which has been causing loud and incessant flights over Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and other cities from the coast to the bay.

The 12-member committee chaired by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian spent four months analyzing proposals that often divided communities from Santa Cruz to South San Francisco in a tug-of-war over flight paths and waypoints (fixed points that planes must fly over at particular altitudes). In the end, the committee's 44-page report explored a series of ideas ranging from changing nighttime flight hours to rerouting planes along different tracks.

Recommendations on two items, moving the flight path for southern arrivals to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and establishing a minimum altitude for the MENLO waypoint, were the most highly anticipated of the committee's final meeting on Nov. 17.

The biggest moment came when the committee recommended eliminating the much-reviled SERFR route for planes arriving to SFO from the south. They voted on an amendment by Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Leopold to essentially return to the historical Big Sur (BSR) flight path, which followed from a point in the Monterey Bay northward.

In March 2015, the FAA moved the flight path three miles to the east, renaming it SERFR. The new path was to be flown using Optimal Profile Descent procedure, which uses idle power during descent to reduce noise and save fuel. But the procedure was never used. It conflicted with restricted airspace around SFO, which is designed to ensure a higher level of safety for arriving aircraft.

Instead, pilots flying the new SERFR route had to use engine thrust and "speed braking" to slow planes down, creating noise. SFO received more than a million complaints regarding the SERFR route, according to the Select Committee’s report.

“This is the most important part of the entire report,” San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine said of the debate regarding moving back to the Big Sur track. "This has been extraordinarily difficult. (The committee) received more than 4,000 emails."

Leopold introduced an amended document supporting the Big Sur track with three recommendations. The route was highly favored by a large contingent of Santa Cruz County residents, but not those living in the San Lorenzo Valley near Felton, nor by Palo Altans, who said the route was not a complete match with the original Big Sur flight path and they feared it could create noise over a larger number of people. The Santa Cruz contingent maintained there would be no greater noise effects.

The document passed, but four Select Committee members voted against the Big Sur shift: Simitian, South San Francisco Mayor Mark Addiego, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, and City of Santa Cruz Councilman Don Lane.

Seeking to narrow the rift, Simitian then suggested that committee members discuss each of the many points within the Big Sur item, which were grouped into three recommendations.

Although the committee was not going to take a second vote on the Big Sur path, taking votes on each of the recommendations might serve to bring the group closer to consensus and eliminate any lingering concerns, he said.

The three areas of recommendations included criteria and procedures; follow-up analysis of the effectiveness of lowering noise levels; and a longer-term look at changing the flight path.

Those recommendations, which included the following points, were each unanimously approved:

• Developing new procedures using satellite-based navigation and the Optimal Profile Descent to reduce noise levels

• Crossing the coastal mountains at no lower than 12,500 feet

• Modifying the restricted airspace so that planes would not "vector" -- go off the flight path to be properly sequenced for arrivals

• Move another waypoint further into Monterey Bay

• Use the noise-reducing navigation procedures over Santa Clara and San Mateo counties past the MENLO waypoint (a spot near Willow Road and the Dumbarton Bridge)

• Raise the altitudes of planes crossing at MENLO; develop procedures that have an equivalent or lower noise level along the entire route when compared to the noise level of Big Sur prior to NextGen

• Use flight altitudes at least as high as the historical Big Sur route along the entire route length

• Use a new Big Sur waypoint at or above 6,000 feet to ensure that flights will cross the MENLO waypoint at or above 5,000 feet

• Limit the future capacity of the number of planes on the route.

• Within three months of implementing the new route and procedures, the FAA should meet with an ad-hoc subcommittee to review whether the new procedure has met the lower noise levels along the entire route. FAA should also work with a permanent committee and local communities to make adjustments to reduce noise.

• The FAA should work with a permanent committee and the community to develop a new flight path to potentially modify or replace Big Sur that would take advantage of flying over nonresidential and unpopulated areas, such as cemeteries, parkland, industrial areas and mountains, the committee recommended.

A separate amendment regarding the MENLO waypoint by Portola Valley Councilwoman Ann Wenger also passed unanimously. It recommended many of the same points as those outlined in the Big Sur item: keeping flights 5,000 feet or higher over MENLO; raising altitude at another waypoint so that flights can hit the targeted altitude when they get to MENLO. But it also recommended the FAA review whether the angle of planes can be increased so they can glide in at higher altitudes.

The recommendation also asks FAA to evaluate using new or existing waypoints to reroute South Bay arrivals over water or sparsely populated areas. But the committee specifically did not recommend replacing MENLO with any waypoint if it only results in shifting noise.

The entire report can be found here.


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18 people like this
Posted by Tom Rindfleisch
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 22, 2016 at 3:23 pm

Thanks to Sue Dremann for the summary of the final meeting (11/17/16) of the Select Committee (SC) on South Bay Arrivals.

A group of Palo Alto residents that has been working on these issues for some time (Lee Christel, Marie-Jo Fremont, Rachel Kellerman, Tom Rindfleisch, Mark Shull, and Jon Zweig in alphabetical order) have written a letter to Representative Eshoo (see Web Link) expressing disappointment in the SC recommendations because they do very little to address the noise problems that have plagued the mid-peninsula (Los Altos Hills, Stanford, Palo Alto, Menlo Park and East Palo Alto) since the major shift in aircraft routing (to the SERFR procedure) introduced under the NextGen program in March 2015.

Noise became intolerable under NextGen/SERFR because previously dispersed traffic was concentrated at a lower altitude into a narrow corridor and because traffic on SERFR increased significantly. Before NextGen, the FAA used a highly manual air traffic approach system, whose imprecision naturally spread arriving aircraft across a 10 mile wide corridor. NextGen replaced that dispersion with an automated high-capacity conveyor-belt that concentrates all these arrivals onto a single dense track about the width of several football fields. The FAA then added traffic to this narrow super track by moving flights from other approaches onto SERFR and reducing separation between sequential flights.

The Select Committee spent most of its time discussing where this route should cross the Pacific coastline (at Capitola or Santa Cruz City). In our view, moving the SERFR track several miles from over Capitola back to over Santa Cruz is a local Santa Cruz County issue that doesn’t hurt or help the mid-Peninsula in any significant way -- the MENLO waypoint (Willow Rd and Hwy 101) is where both routes arrive at the bay to turn toward SFO. These lengthy discussions did divert the SC’s attention from the real problems affecting the mid-peninsula and, in our opinion, resulted in several ill-considered recommendations that (a) would increase the concentration of overflights over the mid-peninsula even further, and (b) missed a golden opportunity to request that the FAA study a high-altitude arrival route over the east bay that would decrease ground noise for everyone by using the full length of the bay for final descent.

Our letter lays out in some detail these reasons for our dissatisfaction and offers several recommendations for further follow-up to really mitigate mid-peninsula aircraft noise problems:

* Establish a Permanent Committee on Arrivals as soon as possible to follow up on the Select Committee recommendations and begin work on long-term solutions that reduce noise throughout the region.

* Ask the FAA to investigate approaches that use the full length of the bay for traffic arriving from the south.

* Strongly urge SFO to modernize its landing system to enable other approach options that would reduce noise for everyone.

For those residents concerned about these issues, it is important that you read the final SC report critically when it comes out and communicate directly with Representative Eshoo about your feelings (see Web Link).

Tom R.

20 people like this
Posted by Whew!
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 22, 2016 at 3:36 pm

Instrument this POST-HASTE!

Like this comment
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 22, 2016 at 3:46 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

Tom, do you know what altitude are planes currently crossing the MENLO waypoint?

3 people like this
Posted by Tom Rindfleisch
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 22, 2016 at 4:09 pm

> do you know what altitude are planes currently crossing the MENLO waypoint?

Nominally above 4,000 ft, John -- see the figure on page 5 of our letter. This means though that some fly lower and some higher. The really loud planes can get down to around 3,000 ft.

Tom R.

13 people like this
Posted by Choppers
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 22, 2016 at 5:44 pm

Personally for someone who lives near 101 and embarcadero the noise from Palo Alto airport is my issue. For those of you who also live near here and have noticed more helicopters flying all day you aren't imaging it. Palo Alto airport has a helicopter lesson operation which means choppers doing circles over our neighborhood. Compounding this is a similar operation based at San Carlos airport that has been using Palo Alto as well. If anyone knows where to complain about that let me know.

3 people like this
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 22, 2016 at 6:36 pm

Great news for 18th congressional district citizens and 24th district assembly Citizens.

Lets request no flights before 5:00 am and 10:45 pm pacific time


18 people like this
Posted by Ammendments and additions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2016 at 1:03 am

From the meeting tapes, the Committee did make recommendation for the FAA "to investigate approaches that use the full length of the bay for traffic arriving from the south."

The committee voted 12-0 to assess new waypoints to alleviate the problems with the Menlo waypoint. The waypoint FAITH was added by a motion from Ann Wengert (Portola Valley), seconded by John Leopold (Santa Cruz). This waypoint would be an approach to use the full length of the Bay (for flights arriving from the south).

See the video Time code 4:37:03 - Web Link

"recognizing the issues faced by Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, (if we are asking the FAA to asses additional waypoints) it makes absolute sense to include FAITH in that analysis"

In fact, approaching the Bay (at high altitudes) via FAITH (above 7000 feet) would also help Santa Cruz as it would not need to cross their area either.

Now is the time to get involved, and keep supporting the efforts to correct the noise and air pollution concentration which has happened while SFO operations have been practically flat!

If you are concerned with aircraft noise and air pollution, add your voice to Open City Hall. The City has provided critical support to the efforts so far, and will need to engage regionally, as much of the work ahead is to work with the various communities. That's what the FAA has said it needs, regional consensus.

What are the priorities you would like to see the City Council adopt for 2017?

Web Link

9 people like this
Posted by Jason
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Nov 23, 2016 at 5:42 am

[Post removed.]

15 people like this
Posted by Lester G
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 23, 2016 at 7:54 am

Three cheers to the committee for making progress on this! It is about time that other Bay area communities share in our pain. It's only fair. Our area is so important to the future of our country and the world so it is a shame to see it targeted like this. Time to right the wrong. Thank you all again from an old-timer who remembers how it used to be.

16 people like this
Posted by Ammendments and additions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2016 at 8:19 am

Lester G

SFO traffic has been flat over the same time period (SFO operations have not reached the highs of the late 90's), the planes used to fly higher and spread out. With higher altitude and varied approaches over the Bay to SFO, noise can be eliminated without any community having to have low altitude concentration or air traffic congestion. Added benefit is that better design would also be more fuel efficient ($ for the airlines) and cleaner air for the folks because there would be less burnt or partially burnt jet fuel falling on people. Done right, this is a win-win type thing.

3 people like this
Posted by Under Menlo
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 23, 2016 at 9:44 am

Isn't the simple answer to move the Menlo waypoint a bit East so it is above the bay? Maybe that's implicit in the above discussion but why not just say so?

10 people like this
Posted by Lester G
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 23, 2016 at 9:50 am

Ammendments and additions:

Well let's not kid ourselves here. FAA NextGen flight paths absolutely reduce fuel usage and pollution significantly which is one of the chief justifications for it. But what goes on in our corner of the world is so precious and important I believe anything that reduces quality of life here must be fought.

9 people like this
Posted by Ammendments and additions
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2016 at 10:13 am

Lester G,

Life is indeed precious, why suck up aviation pollution when it's not necessary - you are incorrect that the last miles of fuel burn from low flying jets - actually jets "driving" over people in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton is efficient.

Nextgenn improvements under way in other parts of the country as well.

See Boston Logan Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Tom Rindfleisch
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 23, 2016 at 1:33 pm

The Select Committee final report is available at Web Link

Tom R.

17 people like this
Posted by Grrrr
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 23, 2016 at 2:26 pm

This is long overdue-- DO IT NOW!

Like this comment
Posted by Alan S
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 26, 2016 at 7:41 pm

[Post removed.]

4 people like this
Posted by Stephen
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 26, 2016 at 10:26 pm

Hopefully we're getting some relief soon. I live close to the corner of El Camino and Page Mill and the noise got much worse this week. The jets fly south and do their wide turns to head north above where I live and they are causing much more noise than if they just flew straight. To do the turn, it sounds like they're coming in for a landing and then gunning the engine to take off again. Repeat the process every 2-3 mins and it's driving me nuts.

9 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 27, 2016 at 9:57 am


Please remember, the big increase in low flying planes that started Friday around dinner and went ferociously all day and night since is "reverse flow" San Jose Airport storm-related reroutings, NOT the SFO traffic this article and everyone have been addressing with the Select Committee!

In "reverse flow," SJC reroutes all of its inbounds to flip a U-turn, by going all the way up to Palo Alto and Stanford, then turning around and going all the way back to SJC. They do this so as to land safely into the wind during unsettled weather.

As bad as it is for Palo Alto and Stanford, they only see the turn... Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara see the SAME PLANE twice during "reverse-flow," first going up to the turnaround then returning into the wind to land at SJC. Every one of these planes crosses over my Mountain View neighborhood TWICE!

Worst of all, because the "reverse flow" SJC traffic has to STAY UNDER the normal sweeping left turning SFO traffic that blankets Mountain View and Los Altos every day of the year regardless of weather (which follows the ridge of Skyine from Bodega Waypoint (25% of SFO traffic) and Oceanic arrivals (5% of SFO traffic), the "reverse flow" pain is at freaking 2,000 feet. (Think about that, I beg you, next time you notice and complain about SRFR to MENLO traffic, which is mercifully at least one to three thousand feet higher than the "reverse-flow" plague.)

"Reverse flow" has been a lifewrecker for Mountain View, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara residents for decades, but it only happens off and on for about five months every year, during storms. But, like the 30% of SFO traffic coming from Bodega and Oceanic that afflicts Mountain View and Los Altos EVERY DAY regardless of weather, it wasn't addressed AT ALL in the Select Committee.

Short answer: Anyone who thinks they can quietly run a hidden agenda to use the new ad hoc FAA/Community forum to shift the 30% of SFO inbounds causing the SRFR/EDDY-MENLO Waypoint noise onto Mountain View and Los Altos is committing a grave breach of ethics. Palo Alto's southern neighbors ALREADY bear an equal (30% from Bodega and Oceanic) in normal weather) or greater (during storms) share of the regional pain!

This whole airplane noise issue is NOT a one-city phenomenon, this is a regional phenomenon. This is why, when the Select Committee actually looked at ALL the regional pain (which my neighbors to the north appear to have not done), they adopted a core principle: "Go for technical and best-practices fixes, and NEVER shift pain from one city onto another." It is a grave ethical error to increase one area's real estate values by injuring the life savings of other homeowners in less well-connected, wealthy or vocal areas... for many of us in Mountain View, our homes ARE our 401ks. We feel your pain, and will work together, but we will not allow solving Palo Alto's problem by offloading it quietly in any closed door forum onto Mountain View and Los Altos.

The proper solutions can be found in best-practices and technical solutions, never in moving pain around. Supervisor Simitian and his Select Committee got it right.

8 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 27, 2016 at 12:26 pm

@Bill of Mountain View -- "...NEVER shift pain from one city onto another."

I submit that Moffett Field has much much less traffic than it could handle, effectively shifting the burden to other regional airports.

11 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto SJC victim
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 27, 2016 at 1:43 pm

@ Bill in Mountain View

Hello Bill. As someone who lives in the southern eastern quarter of Palo Alto, I am painfully aware of the reverse flow SJC arrivals. They fly above my neighborhood at 2,000 feet. The roar is deafening.

I know they also fly above Mountain View and Sunnyvale but I do not get your statement that each reverse flow plane flies above your neighborhood twice when turning above Mountain View. I have watched the flight path of SJC reverse arrivals very carefully, and what I have seen is that they do the exact same thing above Mountain View as they do above Palo Alto. They cross in a north, north east direction and then veer, finishing their U-turn over the bay. Once they do their U turn they are above the bay. Then they fly into SJC over Santa Clara, not over Mountain View or Sunnyvale. This means that they fly above us, Palo Alto, Mountain View or Sunnyvale, only once. Is there something I don't get? They are still awful enough, flying above us only once, I will grant you this.

Something that Palo Alto gets, on the other hand, unlike Mountain View and Sunnyvale, is SJC reverse arrivals doing their U-turn above us after 11 PM. After 11 PM, the curfew is in place, however, planes arrive late, especially in stormy weather, and they are still allowed to land at SJC. Since the airport is mindful of Sunnyvale and Mountain View then, it sends all the late arrivals to start their U-turn... over Palo Alto, of course! So, here is a hardship we get and you generally don't. Late SJC arrivals at 2,000 feet above us at 11:30 PM or midnight. What a privilege! (Not).

All that said, I am with you in lamenting the fact that Palo Alto activists did not push to have SJC reverse arrivals included in the discussion by the Select Committee. I requested that we do, but I was denied. The Santa Cruz Mountains activists did not have such hesitation and they did have their SJC arrival route included and discussed... Smart people.

Like this comment
Posted by easong
a resident of another community
on Nov 27, 2016 at 3:00 pm

I suppose the incoming president will have his own ultra-pro-industry FAA installed, and one of their first agenda items will be to disregard quality-of-life issues for people living under the most profitable approach paths, especially in places where the president elect didn't get many votes. Seriously, FAA can simply turn back any recommendation from the select committee, and our elected representatives are powerless to stop it.

2 people like this
Posted by Dave
a resident of another community
on Nov 27, 2016 at 3:40 pm

Actually Trump and the FAA were feuding due to airplane noise over his home so you need not worry about a disregard in the quality of life w.r.t. an ultra pro industry stance on the FAA.

7 people like this
Posted by Alan S
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 27, 2016 at 6:33 pm

I just want to address this comment.

> The roar is deafening.

[Portion removed.]

The FAA didn't select these flight paths to inflict some pain onto the citizens of Palo Alto, they did it to provide flight paths that are safe for passengers and expedient for pilots. There isn't any un-justice to be undo here.

9 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 28, 2016 at 11:24 am

It noted in the papers that Newport Beach and Orange county are suing the FAA due to the change in flight paths for John Wayne Airport near Disneyland. They aren't wasting time talking - just sue the FAA.

2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 28, 2016 at 11:31 am

Relative to helicopter training I think that should be moved to San Jose Airport. That airport has a new west side that is built out with new hangers for private planes. Why is there a helicopter school next to the Bayshore which is a protected space? Someone should be working this issue like the Sierra Club. There has got to be some type of regulation concerning a helicopter school over protected bayshore.

2 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 28, 2016 at 11:43 am

easong - You are not being helpful here. Making assumptions about what the next president will do in this case will be based on what the current administration is doing which is nothing. Our current elected officials attend meetings but when it is time to step up to the federal FAA bar they are not accomplishing anything. With political pressure this should be easier but we have little actual movement for all of time spent on this. Our current legislative representatives are busy watching their own back. Time to re-think the current batch of legislative representatives.

6 people like this
Posted by Justice
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2016 at 1:23 pm

There are some who feel it is just to reroute 200 commercial flights a day to a narrow band over residential areas. Some of these areas just about as far away from a major airport as any place on the peninsula - 15 to 20 miles from the nearest major commercial airport.

It is just, because of the benefits that rerouting provides.

Would it still be just if it were known that prostate cancer increases 40% for those under the planes?

What is the acceptable limit of sacrifice for those under the planes before a label of injustice is warranted?

Like this comment
Posted by Binocular
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 28, 2016 at 11:42 pm

The planes are fun to watch. An app that tells me where they are from. I see planes from all over the world fly past. Reverse flow from SJC is the best, giant planes flying by at only 2000 ft elevation.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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