Responding to growing concerns about airplane noise, U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier has proposed a series of bills that would allow airports to restrict flight times, require the Federal Aviation Administration to give greater primacy to noise impacts when developing flight routes and procedures and allow local communities to have a significant say in developing flight plans.
The bills, which are co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo and Jimmy Panetta, were introduced last month to address the rapid spikes in complaints about airplane noise throughout the region. The problem became acute in 2014, when the FAA rolled out its NextGen program, which created new routes and concentrated many flights in what some have referred to as aerial "super highways." Residents who live under those route paths and waypoints, including those in Palo Alto, Woodside and Portola Valley, have since reported a significant rise in airplane noise.
"The nonstop noise from flights is seriously affecting residents' sleep, mental health, and overall quality of life," Speier said in a statement. "There is a certain expectation for noise when living near an airport, but this crosses a line. Residents who are at their wits' end have used every available public channel to address this issue to no avail. Our legislation would create new pathways for change and improve overalls responsiveness by the FAA — a public agency that has a responsibility to be accountable to the people."
One of the new bills, known as the Restore Everyone's Sleep Tonight Act, would allow airports to impose access restrictions for certain hours and to assess penalties against air carriers that fail to meet the curfew. Another, called the Fairness in Airspace Includes Residents Act, would include health impacts as a priority in developing flight plans. While the safety of the aircraft would remain the primary issue, the act would establish two co-equal secondary priorities: the efficient use of airspace, and "the minimization of the impact of aviation noise, and other health impacts, on residents and communities, and other impacts of the use of airspace on the environment."
Three other bills aim to make it easier for legislators and residents to get information from the FAA and to provide feedback on new policies. The All Participating in Process Reaching Informed Solutions for Everyone Act directs the FAA administrator to ensure that aviation roundtables be allowed to appoint a representative to working groups involved in NextGen. These representatives, according to the bill, would be able to participate "on the same terms and conditions as a representative of the industry, an airport, or a participating proponent of a procedure."
The Responsive Employees Support Productive Educated Congressional Talk Act would require FAA staff to respond to members of Congress regarding flight procedures affecting their district within 90 days. The Notified Officials to Inform Fully Impel Educated Decisions Act would require the FAA to notify local governments about new or modified flight paths.
While the issue of airplane noise has been on Palo Alto's radar for years, the city is one of several in the region that has struggled to make headway with the FAA on the topic. In June, the council considered suing the FAA over its flight plans. But despite pleas from dozens of residents, some of whom argued that the city has become a "trash heap" and a "dumping ground" for FAA's noise pollution, the council ultimately opted not to move ahead with the lawsuit. Instead, much like in April 2018, when it had similarly considered litigation, the council agreed to pursue regional partnerships on the issue and to continue its lobbying efforts.
Palo Alto is one of a dozen cities that are participating in the Santa Clara/Santa Cruz Community Roundtable, an organization that aims to foster "collaboration and resolution" on aircraft noise. Other cities involved in the roundtable, which is open to any city in the two counties, are Capitola, Cupertino, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Monte Sereno, Mountain View, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Saratoga and Sunnyvale.