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.