Palo Alto Airport gets ready to fly solo | September 27, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 27, 2013

Palo Alto Airport gets ready to fly solo

Sunday's public Airport Day could be the last while under county control

by Eric Van Susteren

Even as Palo Alto's airport risks losing $150,000 in Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grant money, one representative for the Palo Alto Airport Association said he is "cautiously optimistic" about the bustling airport's future.

Control of the Palo Alto Airport on Embarcadero Road will soon change hands from Santa Clara County to the City of Palo Alto, a shift that association Vice President Bob Lenox said is welcome. Lenox said he feels the county doesn't give the airport the management it deserves compared to the other airports it runs.

It's the "stepchild of the county," Lenox said. "The city has a much clearer vision and vested interest in seeing the airport operated and run well."

Santa Clara County runs three airports: Palo Alto, Reid-Hillview in San Jose and South County Airport in San Martin. As the Palo Alto Airport is managed now, it can become mired in the financial and legal difficulties of the other two.

A lawsuit between the South County Airport and Garlic City Skydivers, a skydiving operation seeking a permit to operate out of the airport, is a prime example, Lenox said. It may prevent the Palo Alto Airport from getting a $150,000 grant, which he says is sorely needed to repair the dips and potholes in its aging pavement.

"Reliever airports" like Palo Alto receive entitlement grants from the FAA because they play an important role in reducing congestion at larger nearby airports, such as San Francisco International.

But the South County Airport's skydiving lawsuit has put the county in noncompliance with the FAA, which makes Palo Alto, as part of the county system, ineligible for the grant.

"It's frustrating to be that close and lose it at the last minute," said Andy Swanson, the airport manager the City of Palo Alto hired in April.

Lenox said there's a sliver of hope for recouping the $150,000, after the county stated Sept. 10 it would not appeal the skydiving lawsuit. Although it did so weeks after the drop-dead deadline for getting the grant, he said he hopes the FAA might make an exception because of the airport's acute need for the funds.

In any case, Lenox sees the airport's transfer as a good thing. The airport will have one less government agency with which to coordinate.

"When the City Council elected to have the county manage the airport in 1967 their intent was that the county had expertise and there was an economy of scale there," Lenox said. "There are advantages to an economy of scale; we just haven't seen it."

Carl Honaker, Santa Clara County director of airports, said many airport systems in the country have had success with expanding the management system for their airports.

However, local control is always best when it comes to satisfying the demands of the consumer, he said.

"It's different when you're managing someone else's airport. When you manage an airport via a lease where the community has a lot of say, your hands get tied a lot," he said, using as examples city caps on how many take-offs and landings the airport could have per day, to what extent the airport could expand and how many outside services could operate there.

Swanson said he sees the city's smaller scale as an advantage.

"One of the key things is where the airport is placed — in the Public Works Department," he said. "It's where it should be because of what Public Works does — it taps into many operations, facilities, staff and techniques like pavement engineering."

Eric Peterson, assistant director of airports for Santa Clara County, said he thinks the transfer will work out well for both the city and the county, although there will be some challenges related to the two county employees working at the airport and the loss of certain revenue.

"It's going to be different. I wouldn't say easier or harder, just different," he said. "They've got to learn to run an airport; we've got to learn to go from three to two."

Still, even though the Palo Alto Airport is the third busiest in northern California, with around 180,000 operations (a plane landing or take-off) per year, Peterson said the county has spent more on maintenance than the revenue it's taken in.

That may be why the county seems eager to part with the airport, handing over control three years before its 50-year lease is up in 2017.

As the county's contract with the airport expires, so too will the airport's contracts with its fixed-base operators, which provide services such as renting out hangar space. Lenox said these contracts are now worth far more than the prices at which they were negotiated decades ago. Swanson said the renegotiation or resale of the contracts could be a financial boon for the city.

"The ability to update and do a complete evaluation of the facilities and whether they're at fair-market value will definitely be an advantage to the city and its ability to support the airport enterprise fund," he said.

Swanson, who has worked in airport administration for a decade, said he expects the transition to the city to be finalized by July but it could be as late as the end of next year.

"Right now everything is moving well, but there are a lot of moving pieces with the transfer," he said. "Nothing unexpected has happened yet."

The major hurdle for the city's takeover is the completion of an Airport Layout Plan, a required document for the FAA that reports existing facilities and identifies future plans and developments.

Swanson said the layout plan will be part of the city's airport master plan, which will be finished once the transition is complete. It will include a five-year capital-improvement project work plan, recommendations for staffing and an evaluation of contracts with the airport's tenants and lessees, according to the city's 2014 budget. A contractor will complete the plan for $75,000.

Depending on how many challenges come up during the transition, this year's Airport Day on Sept. 29, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. could be the airport's last while it's under county control. Swanson said the public event featuring tours, kids events and food is a great opportunity to learn more about the small but busy airport in the Baylands.

"Sure, it's seeing the planes and the airport but it's also about learning about fire, emergency services, Stanford Life Flight and all the other programs the airport is involved in," he said. "It plays a huge role in letting the community see what the airport is all about." •

Online Editor Eric Van Susteren can be reached at


Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2013 at 9:43 am

Before all the anti airport jump in on this one, it is important to note that the airport serves businesses in and around Palo Alto. It is not and should not be thought of as a city airport, but as a regional resource. As such, there should be a lot of support to keep this airport in top notch condition to enable it to thrive. We should be thinking of ways to support the business with restaurant and other businesses catering to the needs of airport users. How about putting zip cars, bike rentals, etc. How about extending the shuttle to the airport. How about using some airport space for carpool parking.

Think positively folks, this is an asset!

Posted by John, a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 27, 2013 at 9:47 am

The airport is a great asset to the community and it's good to get it back under our control.

Posted by Susan, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 27, 2013 at 9:53 am

The article spelled "Reid-Hillview" wrong.

Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Sep 27, 2013 at 10:35 am

How about doing something about the late-night /early morning flights? Every night at 1:00, 1:30AM. ENOUGH.

I know, too sensible for PA to do something for its citizens.

Posted by DSFNA Grandma, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 27, 2013 at 10:51 am

Will the $150,000 to fix the runways come out of Palo Alto's pocket? So if the airport serves local businesses, why can't it assess, or at least ask, the businesses for contributions to fix the runways? Say 100 businesses pay $1500 each? Even if it's an asset, how many of the business users have actual Palo Alto addresses? I'm guessing that this is a lot like the golf course, where more than half the users are not Palo Alto residents.

Posted by Eric Van Susteren, digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Sep 27, 2013 at 10:51 am

Eric Van Susteren is a registered user.


Many thanks for your correction. It's been fixed in the article.

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 27, 2013 at 11:03 am

"How about using some airport space for carpool parking."

That's a great idea. It's high time that land stopped being a playground for the privileged and became a true community asset. There's lots of space that's being very inefficiently used to store airplanes, and that runway could probably accommodate several hundred cars.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 27, 2013 at 11:27 am

>The airport is a great asset to the community and it's good to get it back under our control.

I agree. It has enormous potential for the betterment of Palo Alto.

I also agree with carpool parking, but not at the airport. Put it at the recently undedicated parkland, instead of wasting that space on anaerobic digestion fiascos.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 27, 2013 at 11:47 am

Problem is that everybody has a different definition of "betterment".

Posted by william, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 27, 2013 at 12:11 pm

The 1 am flights are probably Life Flight going in to refuel. They probably just saved someone's life. Someday it might be you that they help save.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 27, 2013 at 12:41 pm

The 1 am flights are 747s going into SFO.

Posted by Crescent Park Dad, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 27, 2013 at 12:50 pm

As long as the airport is self-sustaining and does not require any supplemental funding from CPA, then I'm fine with it.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 27, 2013 at 2:02 pm

Life Flights are helicopters going to Stanford, not small aircraft flying low into the Palo Alto airport at 1am. I support the airport, but do not support flights between 11pm and 6-7am -- we all deserve uninterrupted sleep.

And yes, there are SFO arrivals that "buzz" Palo Alto as well. Tracking flights on the website (don't remember the URL) show that patterns are changed sometimes because of weather, but other times for unknown reasons. There are a number of SFO-bound planes that hit below 5,000 feet right over Palo Alto. Those with noisy, whining engines are awful, especially when they seem to come one right after another throughout the evening.

Posted by Mom, a resident of Monroe Park
on Sep 27, 2013 at 2:20 pm

I love to take my kids to Airport Day every year!

Posted by @DSFNA Grandma, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm

The $150,000 is a federal grant that Palo Alto has been losing out on because the county decided to not allow someone to open a business at South County Airport even though it had a contractual obligation to the FAA to do so.

Posted by Chris C., a resident of Community Center
on Sep 27, 2013 at 2:31 pm

Imposing an limit on night flights to an airport can be logistically hard -- think of how you might close a random road in Palo Alto during certain hours, and enforce that closure. Do you close it to all cars, or just folks who don't live there? Do you need to station police there to make sure nobody drives on it? How do you deal with lawsuits (justified or not) from people who think you impeded their freedom of movement?

One potential source of revenue for the airport -- hangar space. For years there has been a hangar shortage at the airport. The waiting list to get a hangar is huge. The rents being charged are 4-5 times higher than what airports outside the Bay Area can collect. I can tell you many more airplane owners would love to park their planes at Palo Alto if good hangars were available.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 27, 2013 at 3:07 pm

@Chris -- actually these kinds of limits are common. SJC and SFO both have hours in which flights are allowed/not allowed. They are enforced by fining those who violate the policy.

Posted by Chris C., a resident of Community Center
on Sep 27, 2013 at 4:21 pm

@neighbor: You are right, but... the SFO and SJC restrictions don't stop all flights, just older (noisier) jet planes, which are not allowed into PAO already. Pretty much every plane that flies into PAO is allowed to land at SJC around the clock. Full details can be found here:

Web Link

SFO and SJC are large enough to have staff who can enforce this curfew. PAO is unmanned during the night, and so there would be nobody around to do enforcement.

Posted by Chris C., a resident of Community Center
on Sep 27, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Ooops, I meant to post this link: Web Link

Posted by Connell, a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 27, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Maybe now that PA is taking over, they can prevent flights from taking off in thick fog instead of leaving it up to the pilots.

Posted by boscoli, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 28, 2013 at 11:18 am

Whatever one may think of the airport, please stop with the charade of 'a community asset'. The airport is not, nor ever been, such a thing. It is, and always will be, a playground for boys and girls refusing to grow up and caring not at all about those living near the airport. The travel needs of businessmen can be easily be satisfied by a number of airports in the area. This airport is literally across the fence from living and breathing humans who lack the financial means and political influence necessary to get rid of the airport. Can you imagine the residents of Woodside, Atherton or Los Altos Hills tolerating this airport in their midst for even one day?

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 28, 2013 at 11:52 am

>Whatever one may think of the airport, please stop with the charade of 'a community asset'.

It is a community asset, and it should become a better one, through appropriate development and planning. PAO has been blocked by the greenies for decades (e.g. no more hangers). It is time to liberate PAO, and plan to coordinate it with the re-designed golf course, new hotel developments (e.g. Mings), business park convenience and expansion, the education of school kids (and adults) about the thrill of flying, etc.

PAO is a major asset that Palo Alto should not lose. It should be exploited in order to increase our tax base, and to enhance our quality of life in PA.

Posted by boscoli, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 28, 2013 at 12:44 pm

@Craig Laughton, repeating a fallacy ("PAO is a community asset) ad nauseum doesn't make true. PAO is a white elephant nightmare, nothing more. Your vision seems to be of Palo Alto as traffic chocked industrial park, a nightmarish vision of those with the mentality of let's- build- and- pave-over-everything. Hopefully that nightmare will never materialize. Palo Alto has already been grossly, irresponsibly and scandalously overdeveloped.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 28, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Palo Alto Airport is an asset for the community of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, Atherton, Woodside, Tesla, Facebook, Google and whoever else is prepared to do business. Commercial airports and commercial airlines are increasingly difficult for business travel particularly with business samples, booth materials, etc. which need to accompany many business travelers.

Just because some people in the Palo Alto community think it doesn't serve them, then they think they can deny the usefulness of the amenity to the surrounding business community.

Yes there may be some joy flights or hobbyists using it. But, I am convinced that the business uses far outweigh them. You might as well deny Stanford Shopping Center to out of towners with that mindset.

Posted by Boscoli, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 28, 2013 at 1:09 pm

We already have too much business here. Palo Alto is not an industrial park. Since when has business become the golden calf we all have to worship? zThe excessive traffic and density generate ever increasing need to service the and repair the infrastructure, while our quality of life keeps diminishing and our environment destroyed. Following the current trend we will resemble some of those dreadful industrial parks in San Fernando Valley in a few years. Palo Alto has been grossly overdevelopment so a few can get wealthy. Now is the time to put a stop to it and return this once wonderful time to its roots.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 28, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Sunday 20 percent chance of rain. Wind from the south will reverse the normal traffic pattern.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 28, 2013 at 2:32 pm

>Sunday 20 percent chance of rain. Wind from the south will reverse the normal traffic pattern.

Ha ha! Whether you agree with me or oppose me, regarding PAO, that is a real funny. Thanks.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 1, 2013 at 11:02 am

@Chris C. -- flights after 11:00 pm into SJC are severely restricted. Only jets with very low noise levels are allowed. Small craft with props are not allowed, which is what applies at Palo Alto.

Although not a PA airport issue, a Life Flight buzzed overhead at 2:30am the other night -- completely unnecessary to fly that low.

Posted by Old Palo Altan, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 2, 2013 at 6:05 am

Dear Neighbor:

Prop planes have no curfew at SJC; only older jets. You are, as they say, entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts....

Posted by Charles K, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Oct 2, 2013 at 7:39 pm

Never close an airport in your back yard because you will never have another chance to replace a good thing...

Posted by Jetman, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 5, 2013 at 10:38 pm

If you think commercial aircraft noise over Palo Alto has increased in the last few months... you are correct. In August 2013 the South China Morning Post reported that the FAA, in response to the Asiana crash at SFO, had begun advising Foreign Airlines to stop using the 5,000’ visual approach to SFO, and to only fly 3,000' GPS final approach routes. These overseas flights, which typically use larger four engined craft, are the jets rattling your windows, and vibrating your walls.

The smaller craft that emit a high pitched whistle are flying a new approach to SFO known as "NextGen" which the FAA began to roll-out at Bay Area airports in January 2013. Under "NextGen", aircraft "coast" down from altitude at high speed along several precisely navigated approaches. If you live under one of the "NextGen" approach routes, you better get used to it. The precision navigation used in the "Nextgen" system will channel air traffic into several narrow flight paths, and allow air traffic control to use much smaller aircraft-to-aircraft spacing.

Under the prevailing westerly winds, there are five basic approach routes to SFO. Three of the five routes fly directly over Palo Alto. "NextGen" approach routes typically overlay existing conventional approach routes.

Posted by musical, a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 6, 2013 at 1:51 am

Palo Alto skies are silent at the moment. FlightAware shows nothing in the air for a hundred miles. A couple recent high overflights by airliners on their way from LAX to Beijing or Incheon.

Posted by jon, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 22, 2014 at 4:45 pm

Complaining about airport noise? Did you not know there was an airport near your home when you bought your home? I learned to fly at Palo Alto 40 years ago. The airport and its noise was here before you were!

The city should lengthen the runway to 4000', close the bird sanctuary or move it as birds and airplanes can lead to disaster.

If Palo Alto is in the heart and soul of Silicon Valley, having an airport capable of handling small jets and other business type planes will help the whole economy.

Posted by can't wait, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2014 at 4:53 pm

jon, old palo alto

"having an airport capable of handling small jets and other business type planes will help the whole economy."

Yeah! business, and then the whole economy, can't wait!

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