As the San Francisco International Airport explores new flight procedures for reducing airplane noise over Bay Area communities, Palo Alto is voicing frustrations that its concerns continue to fall under the radar.
The most recent dispute between the city and the airport was detailed in an exchange of letters between Mayor Pat Burt and Ivar Satero, airport director at SFO. The airport has been working with communities to develop ways to reduce noise in response to an upsurge of complaints related to the Federal Aviation Administration's implementation of NextGen, a flight system that in many cases consolidated flight paths and created what some local residents described as "superhighways" over their homes.
While Palo Alto has been lobbying lawmakers and airport officials for years to address the noise complaints, city leaders have been flustered by their relative powerlessness to make a difference on what is inherently a national issue that is out of their purview. Its efforts on a regional level have also run into political hurdles. The SFO Roundtable, a coalition that consists of San Francisco and cities in San Mateo County and that regularly meets to discuss airplane noise, recently considered allowing Palo Alto to join them but ultimately reversed course and decided to keep membership limited to the two existing counties.
In a June 17 letter, Satero assured Palo Alto officials that their input was taken into account as SFO moved ahead with an effort known as the Ground Based Augmentation System (GBAS), technology that uses GPS signals to allow aircraft to land with more precision. The system paves the way for the airport to experiment with new landing approaches, including ones that reduce airplane noise. SFO recently submitted to the FAA its proposal for "innovative approaches" that aim to reduce aircraft noise over communities.
Though the airport discussed the innovative approaches with SFO Roundtable members, who voted in April 6 to support the submission, Burt took issue with the fact that neither Palo Alto nor any of the other cities that are not in the Roundtable were informed about the proposal. He noted the only eight roundtable members voted to support the submission, while six opposed it. Among those opposing was Menlo Park, which Burt noted is the only city in the roundtable that is directly affected by the SERFR overlay, a flight path that goes over Midpeninsula.
Burt argued in a May 31 letter that Menlo Park, Palo Alto and Los Altos will "need to be involved in the future to evaluate the noise data and criteria that will determine whether a GLS (GBAS Landing System) approach must be discontinued if it creates more noise."
"Therefore, Palo Alto requests that the IAs (innovative approaches) submittals be withdrawn until proper coordination of the affected communities can occur," Burt's letter states.
This wasn't the first time Palo Alto officials expressed their frustration about not being heard. At an April 25 community meeting facilitated by SFO, Vice Mayor Lydia Kou claimed that airport officials have failed to consider the city's requests for permanent noise monitoring and to solicit its feedback before moving forward with proposed reforms.
While SFO has been deploying portable noise monitors in Palo Alto, it has not been willing to make a commitment to continuous monitoring.
"We are not being heard and we have grave concerns about what is being done," Kou said. "It could potentially increase the noises, even though all your tests say it will reduce it. The fact is, we do need a meaningful way of monitoring noise. Temporary doesn't do it."
Burt reiterated in his May 31 letter the city's desire to see "uninterrupted" noise monitoring to assess the impact of the proposed landing approaches, particularly in the SERFR overlay. Temporary monitors, he wrote, are "unacceptable because of the anticipated low usage" of the new approaches.
In response, Satero wrote that while SFO is agreeable to portable noise monitoring, he would not commit to measuring noise on a permanent, ongoing basis. He suggested that the city work with its elected representatives to secure funding for this type of monitoring.
He also made it clear that SFO has no intention of withdrawing the "innovative approaches" that it had submitted to the FAA. Palo Alto, Satero noted, played a very active role throughout the process and the airport's public engagement process "has allowed for a full range of viewpoints and concerns to be expressed."
"As we have often stated, we know that the process will take multiple steps toward achieving truly meaningful reductions in noise," Satero wrote. "Achieving these reductions is why the Airport pursued GBAS in the first place."
He also assured Burt that the airport is committed to "deactivating any procedure that demonstrates a negative impact."
"For these reasons, the Airport plans to continue to move forward with this process in order to achieve meaningful noise reductions for affected communities," Satero wrote.