Editorial: Serious or mollifying?

FAA report raises hopes on airplane-noise reduction, but with a long and uncertain time table

The good news is that a long-awaited response to recommendations made eight months ago by a "select" committee of elected officials appointed by local Members of Congress suggest an acknowledgment by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the South Bay's air traffic noise problems are real and can't be ignored.

The bad news is that the FAA says little can change for at least two more years because of the agency's drawn-out processes for modifying current practices.

With the FAA under attack by President Donald Trump, it remains to be seen whether real change is in the offing or if the response is just a way to get the local congressional delegation and critics off the agency's back.

The report, which makes City of Palo Alto staff reports seem poetic by comparison, exhibits little effort to communicate in plain English, is filled with jargon inaccessible to even the most informed reader and reflects the intensely bureaucratic nature of the FAA. Its 10 pages of text and 39 pages of "response" tables read more like an interagency technical memo than a document written for public consumption.

Much is nearly impossible to decipher, such as this typical paragraph: "In accordance with the Phase One document (see the FAA's Phase One Report 2.a.ii), 99 percent of aircraft flying the STTIK departures are within 1NM of the SSTIK waypoint, as per the procedure. Without ATC intervention, pilots are flying the SSTIK procedure as designed. NCT will continue to reinforce no intervening with aircraft until after the SSTIK waypoint to personnel through training and briefings."

In many cases, the FAA's response to the select committee's recommendations states that solutions lie with more training and briefings of air traffic controllers rather than revisions to formal rules, but the agency wouldn't agree to implement noise measurement practices that could create greater accountability for achieving improved results from these trainings.

Nevertheless, the response document in its entirety amounts to significant progress, in theory.

The FAA said it will move forward with changing the arrival flight path to San Francisco Airport from the south over the Santa Cruz mountains back to one more similar to what was in place historically and at higher altitudes.

It says it has already made changes to reduce the number of late-night flights crossing populated areas and will develop new rules that move these approaches over the bay as much as possible.

Perhaps of most benefit to Palo Alto residents, the FAA says it will look at ways to disperse arrivals bound for SFO so that fewer plans are funneled over a major navigational "waypoint" located above and south of the intersection of Willow Road and U.S. Highway 101. It said, however, that increasing the minimum altitude for flights at that waypoint to 5,000 or more feet was "not feasible."

But the big question is whether any of these seemingly positive developments will actually get implemented given the upheaval in progress at the FAA. The five-year term of the current Obama-appointed FAA Administrator, Michael Huerta, whom Rep. Anna Eshoo and other local congresspersons have tried for years to influence, will expire in January. Trump will then appoint a new administrator who is likely to focus on carrying out Trump's plan to privatize the air-traffic-control system. Trump has been a harsh critic of the agency and recently said personnel "didn't know what the hell they were doing."

Fortunately, a highly motivated and informed group of citizens who have organized over the last few years around this issue will cause Eshoo and other local officials to keep pressing the FAA on its follow-through.

Perhaps the most immediate and important action item is to form a new permanent interagency group of elected officials from cities in Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties who would meet regularly with the leadership of San Jose and San Francisco airports and the FAA. This was a top recommendation of both the select committee, which was chaired by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, and of Eshoo and newly elected congressmen Jimmy Panetta and Ro Khanna.

San Mateo County has had its "SFO Roundtable" for many years and although it has no real power, it does provide a formal mechanism for airport, FAA and city officials to seek solutions to noise problems from arrivals and departures at SFO.

Selfishly and shamefully, that group has consistently barred participation from Santa Clara County cities to avoid having to address how SFO air traffic impacts this region. We therefore hope for the earliest possible formation of the proposed new South Bay group so whatever momentum has been achieved with the FAA isn't lost and there is a continuing forum to work on the noise issue.


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12 people like this
Posted by Editorial not serious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 4, 2017 at 10:32 am


In one sentence you state "progress" referring to a change of path "to one more similar to what was in place historically and at higher altitudes." Then, below you state "increasing the minimum altitude for flights at that waypoint to 5,000 or more feet was "not feasible."

Logical conclusion is that going back to to the same mess going on now (not the historically higher altitudes), isn't progress for Palo Alto.

Makes your editorial not very serious.

1 person likes this
Posted by Mike Alexander
a resident of St. Claire Gardens
on Aug 5, 2017 at 5:02 pm

@Editorial not serious. As I understand it, FAA is agreeing to change the arrival and/or departure path over the Santa Cruz Mtns to something similar to what it was before, giving some relief to mountain residents. Flights arriving from north, west, and south would still mostly cross the waypoint at Willow & 101, and at the same altitude as now, with two differences: 1) the new path over the mountains would allow a more constant, quieter, descent for planes from the south; and 2) if practical, planes would be directed to the waypoint on more dispersed paths, meaning less concentrated noise over neighborhoods in Palo Alto.

7 people like this
Posted by Editorial not serious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 6, 2017 at 5:41 am

Mike Alexander,

On the contrary, a steeper dive from higher altitudes (everywhere else), to unchanged low altitudes over Palo Alto would more likely make descents noisier!

What you add "if practical, planes would be directed to the waypoint on more dispersed paths" is hogwash.

That's what happens now - planes are both on a set path, and they also go off the path (at low altitudes over Palo Alto neighborhoods). Does it solve the problem? No.

Containing the lowest altitude operations (on or off a set path) over the same area is neither dispersion nor progress.

4 people like this
Posted by Tired of Noise
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2017 at 11:24 am

The FAA response is simply to drag the process out. They have no intention of implementing changes that would give any sort of real relief to those on the ground. That is not surprising considering that it is a captive agency and that the aviation industry is set on expansion, no matter the cost to the health of communities or the environment.

These new flight paths have one purpose only: increased capacity. More level approach/departure paths at slower speeds allow planes to fly closer together because they create less turbulence (Wake RECAT is the name of the project that looks into that).

Complaining to the FAA is nearly pointless. They are simply following the marching orders given from Congress, who is pushing the agenda of the aviation industry and other industries who would benefit from increased air travel/transport.

There is only one way to make the aviation industry listen: hurt their profits. Don't fly and don't have anything shipped by air.

4 people like this
Posted by Editorial not serious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 8, 2017 at 6:13 am

Tired of Noise, resident from another community

Almost as tiring as the noise are the technical jargon explanations for why it has to be this way. Or looking the other way from the real issues.

There is a BAY to use for low level approaches.

Jet noise has always been and will remain a political issue.

The FAA gets requests from people supposedly tired of noise to do impossible things like to "fix noise in place." Cities looking to keep all the noise in Palo Alto are up in arms working against creating new approaches that could better organize traffic to do less harm.

Please, spare us the lectures about why nothing is possible.

The Editor fails to address the political issues, except to mention how the airport roundtable "selfishly and shamefully" barred entry to "Santa Clara cities" - not even stating that it was ONLY Palo Alto which asked and was rejected.

Technical jargon explanations and burying the real issues is something the FAA does not do alone. Other communities have their interests, I expect better from the press and especially from a publication which serves one of the most affected communities.

2 people like this
Posted by Editorial not serious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 8, 2017 at 6:38 am

Add the distraction of privatization as a burning concern, compared to the local/regional roadblocks to real solutions.

10 people like this
Posted by Kya
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2017 at 8:16 am

Great editorial Palo Alto Weekly. I love your use of word mollify. I also appreciate that you called out THE ROUNDTABLE/FAA for their hypocrisy of moving all arrivals to the Menlo waypoint, then basically saying the can't raise to 5,000 feet. IMHO, the Round Table tries to keep its position that "nothing has changed under NEXTGEN". Also Anna Eshoo supposedly working for a FAIR SOLUTION, however making sure nobody can move noise,except the Round Table, SFO, San Mateo County onto Palo Alto. We got screwed......our congresswoman is two-faced, not having 1 meeting with her constituents living under the noise highway from SFO....blaming everything on Trump.

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