A strongly hyped overhaul of the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system called NextGen is being deployed across the nation and is meeting with outrage from local residents surrounding nearly every major airport.
Thankfully, after months of increasing concerns being raised by her constituents, Rep. Anna Eshoo is now taking steps with other members of Congress to get the FAA to address the obvious flaws in this ambitious new program.
In Arizona, city officials in Phoenix have become so frustrated with the FAA and the lack of effective action by its federal legislators that the city recently sued the agency. Residents in Portola Valley, acting as individuals, have also sued the FAA over what they allege were inadequate assessments of the noise impacts prior to the program's implementation.
The NextGen program radically alters both the approach and take-off patterns at airports. Its laudable goals are to reduce fuel consumption, increase safety and capacity, and to create standard flight paths that bring planes into airport landing approaches at proper spacing and on steady and gentle glide paths. Departure routes under the new system are designed to get planes turning in the direction of their destination quickly after take-off to reduce the number of miles flown in the wrong direction.
Implementation of the program in the Bay Area has been gradual but has changed most noticeably since April. A key component of the new system is having all incoming planes merge together into consistent, narrow flight paths that never change, instead of the old system that brought arriving planes across populated areas on many different routings and at higher altitudes, which spread the noise over many communities.
Here on the Peninsula, aircraft coming from the west used to cross over the coastal mountains and proceed to the bay anywhere from Menlo Park to Sunnyvale and then descend more rapidly once over the bay as they approached San Francisco International Airport.
Now, with the new procedures, satellites are guiding incoming planes along precisely defined routes, at lower altitudes and at programmed gentle rates of descent to maximize fuel savings and airport efficiency. Previously, fixed ground-based radio beacons would be used to direct flights from one beacon to the next in a zig-zagging pattern, and planes would be individually directed to descend to a specific altitude and hold at that level until further instructions from controllers.
Palo Alto has been hit especially hard by the changes because three of four major inbound air traffic lanes now merge together above the city, meaning that virtually all flights arriving at SFO from the west, south and north converge over Palo Alto at altitudes as low as 4,000 feet before they cross over East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park to reach the bay and then continue over water to the airport.
A similar controversy has erupted in Santa Cruz County, where the new system has begun routing all flights from the south headed for San Jose and San Francisco airports along new, narrow routes rather than dispersing those flights over a larger area.
In meetings closed to the public and media last week in Palo Alto and Santa Cruz, FAA officials heard from upset residents and elected officials gathered by Eshoo and Rep. Sam Farr and reportedly pledged to look into how the noise problems could be addressed.
That's a start, but we're disappointed that Eshoo did not insist on an open meeting with media coverage so that the discussion was open for all to see and hear.
The FAA is touting the NextGen system as the answer to an ancient air-traffic routing system that was increasingly having difficulty keeping up with today's volume of air traffic and that was costing airlines millions of dollars in additional fuel and generating avoidable carbon emissions.
But the FAA's arrogant treatment of local communities elsewhere and its vague, hedged bureaucratic responses last week mean that Eshoo and her colleagues have their work cut out for them.
Having developed a highly sophisticated satellite-controlled system, surely it is possible to ensure that approach and departure routes are distributed over many communities, that higher minimum altitudes over populated areas be established, and that late-night arrivals are handled differently.
Palo Alto cannot expect to shift this problem to other communities, but it can demand that it only bear its fair share.