Airport readies for fleet of the future | March 10, 2023 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 10, 2023

Airport readies for fleet of the future

Palo Alto may host one of nation's first airports for electric aircraft

by Gennady Sheyner

When Palo Alto took over operations of its namesake airport from Santa Clara County nine years ago, the busy Baylands hub was in a sad state: losing money and wearing down from heavy use and insufficient upkeep.

The city's 2014 decision appears to have paid off. Palo Alto Airport today is home to 360 aircraft and five flight schools; its annual revenues exceed its operating expenses by about $600,000; and it has recently received a major facelift — a $36-million apron reconstruction project that was funded largely by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to expand the airplane parking and maintenance area. As the City Council and airplane administrators pondered on Monday, March 6, the next phase of airplane improvements, the common sentiment was: Sky's the limit.

No longer content to simply have an airport that serves a useful regional function and doesn't bleed money, the council and city staff are looking at making Palo Alto Airport a world leader when it comes to sustainability.

This means turning it into one of the first airports in the nation capable of accommodating electric airplanes. It also means looking for ways to discourage — if not abolish — leaded fuel and to construct solar arrays throughout the 102-acre facility so that it would actually generate more electricity than it expends.

That effort has already begun. Underground, beneath the airport's new apron, lie conduits that could accommodate installation of utilities, enabling charging stations for electric aircraft. Airport staff has also worked with the FAA to include infrastructure for future solar photovoltaic installations, according to a report from the Public Works Department.

"Staff are not aware of any other airport in the nation in a position to transition to electric aircraft as quickly as PAO," the report states.

According to Airport Manager Andrew Swanson, Palo Alto Airport is currently the fourth busiest in the Bay Area, averaging about 152,000 takeoffs and landings per year and trailing only San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose airports. Unlike those commercial airports, the general airport in Palo Alto is a "reliever airport" that spreads around air traffic to assist the larger airports and make the entire system work more efficiently.

It is frequently used as a refueling stop for Life Flight helicopters bound for Stanford Hospital and it serves as a base for Silicon Valley DART, an organization that flies in supplies to communities where emergencies such as floods, fires and earthquakes have made roads impassable.

And with one taxiway and one runway, Palo Alto Airport is also a popular training ground for air traffic controllers, Swanson said.

"We're very lucky to have an FAA control tower and it's one of the busier, more sought-out assignments to work at for the controllers, to come there and then progress to larger airports like Oakland, SFO and San Jose or throughout the nation," Swanson told the council.

Swanson highlighted some of the airport's recent sustainability initiatives, most notably its effort to switch from leaded to unleaded fuel. The project is requiring the refurbishment of an existing fuel tank at the airport to accommodate a new form of fuel known as Unleaded 94. While that project has seen some delays because of supply-chain issues, it is now expected to be completed by May. Airport staff have also been coordinating with fuel providers to make sure they can have the unleaded fuel immediately available when the tank is ready.

At the same time, the city is preparing to kick off development of a long-range plan for the airport. Funded by the FAA and known as the Long-Range Facilities and Sustainability Plan, the document will identify the improvements that the city will need to make to the airport and explore emerging technologies that are anticipated to reduce aircraft noise, according to the staff report. It will be the first planning document for the airport in nearly two decades.

The airport as solar-power station

Just about everyone on the council agreed that the airport should be as green and inclusive as possible. Council member Pat Burt suggested that because of the airport's size and configuration, it represents the "largest solar opportunity on any city-owned land that is practicable in the city." The airport can be equipped with a microgrid that would increase the reliability of the city's electrical system and, if needed, provide power to the water treatment plant and other vital services.

"We are overdue to proceed aggressively on a large-scale solar plan for the airport," Burt said.

Burt also suggested that finding ways to reduce airplane noise isn't a luxury so much as an imperative. He recalled his interactions with an East Palo Alto resident who lives close to the airport and who reported midnight flights that have been disturbing him and his neighbors.

"These are the sorts of things that if we don't address them to the extent that's appropriate, we're going to have real pushback for the closure of the airport," Burt said.

Mayor Lydia Kou agreed that the city should focus on reducing noise and suggested that the new long-term plan consider ways to measure and mitigate noise and other environmental impacts, including lead. Council member Julie Lythcott-Haims proposed that the airport look for new ways to engage young people in Palo Alto and East Palo Alto.

"Many of our children feel like the only way out of Palo Alto is a degree in software engineering, maybe if more of them got turned on to flying, life would be better lived for kids here," Lythcott-Haims said.

Some of that is already happening. Palo Alto resident Tom Myers, a member of the West Valley Flying Club, said his club is putting together a $30,000 scholarship program that would sponsor a youth in East Palo Alto. Myers, who began flying 35 years ago, said his club now has 60 airplanes, 40 instructors and 10 employees. He thanked the council for giving his club a home.

"Not only do you guys give us a home but you give us the confidence that we're going to have a home in the future," he said.

He also lauded the improvements that the airport underwent since the city took it over from the county, including storm drain upgrades. In the old days, he said, when rain came down, the parked airplanes would flood.

"Briefly, I did not own an airplane; I owned a submarine. I cannot begin to tell you how disheartening it is," Myers said. "Over the last few months, we had rain to beat all rainstorms, and I'm proud to say ... there hasn't been one drop of water in my hangar."

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Mark Dinan
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Mar 7, 2023 at 10:32 am

Mark Dinan is a registered user.

I am really curious how the airport comes to 152k takeoffs and landings a year. That number seems outrageously inaccurate. I live in EPA close to the airport and there are literally hours and even days (rain & windy days) without any action. The only time the airport is busy are sunny weekends, later afternoons after work, and the occasional mid-afternoon. During our recent rainstorms, for instance, entire days went by without planes taking off. 152,000 takeoffs and landings means there is an average of 34 flights or landings per hour for every daylight hour of the year. While busy times meet or exceed this number, hard to imagine that this number is in anyway accurate. The airport is hardly used after dark.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 7, 2023 at 10:33 am

Online Name is a registered user.

More delusions of grandeur. More noise. Why isn't cutting the noise that keeps us up every night a top priority since more of us try to sleep than fly private planes! Isnt "mental health" supposed to be a top priority here? And how about the fact that CA is unlikely to be able to "sustain" a 15-fold demand for more electricity?

"As the City Council and airplane administrators pondered on Monday the next phase of airplane improvements, the common sentiment was: sky's the limit.

No longer content to simply have an airport that serves a useful regional function and doesn't bleed money, the council and city staff are looking at making Palo Alto Airport a world leader when it comes to sustainability. "

Posted by M
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 7, 2023 at 11:08 am

M is a registered user.

PAo is a scourge to the residents of East Palo Alto, who endure not only the constant noise from near continuous take offs and landing due to the multiple flights schools there, but the majority of the aircraft there, including the flight schools, still used leaded gas.

Posted by PA North Resident
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 7, 2023 at 11:17 am

PA North Resident is a registered user.

Our airport is a jewel that is finally getting the care-and-feeding necessary. Located between the city and the bay, it is far enough from residential areas to have low impact yet close enough to serve residents and businesses in our city and our region. Most arriving and departing traffic flies over the bay to reduce noise. Due to the predominant winds, departing aircraft have a higher noise impact on EPA than on PA. Efforts to find ways to mitigate the noise for EPA residents still further should continue to be pursued. I'm very glad to see the City Council recognizes the value and potential of the airport. PA has always strived to lead the way and we have an opportunity to do that in aviation thanks to recent support and investments. A small amount contributed from the airport's operating profits gets a huge amount contributed from the FAA. The City Council needs to support more of that for future projects because they create the infrastructure for startups, education, and sustainability that have made our city great. Thank you to PA Online for covering the meeting thoroughly and accurately.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 7, 2023 at 11:37 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Nonsense. Many of the flights take off after 10PM so Californians can make their East Coast morning meetings. Some nights and early mornings, the flights take off every 15 minutes. You can hear them loud and clear on Middlefield.

I don't get the hypocrisy of singing the Sustainability Song while to everyone else but sure, it's ok for US to sit here in the cold and dark when OUR power goes out because there are birds on the wires and balloons in the air because the city doesn;t care enough to make it a priority to underground our wires or upgrade our grid,

(Actually I do get the hypocrisy. Money talks and @(Q$*@@()# walks.)

Posted by Consider Your Options.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2023 at 11:45 am

Consider Your Options. is a registered user.

I see my tax dollars are hard at work creating a playground where the rich can practice their expensive hobby. Meanwhile, Cubberley continues to rot and serves as community storage, rather than as a functional facility for community services for everyone.

Latest Cubberley update: Cubberley Gym has been closed due to water intrusion that caused the floor to buckle--another impact of forty years of active neglect of basic maintenance.

Money talks.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 7, 2023 at 12:28 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

Since you mention it, I agree Cubberley is a GEM and prime central location and it deserves to be a new, modern, fully functioning public school and/or public community center.
The airport I am neutral on as long as flights don’t go over us.

Posted by Turned Off
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 7, 2023 at 1:15 pm

Turned Off is a registered user.

The Palo Alto Airport runway, at just 2,500 feet, limits use to small, less noisy aircraft. Flight patterns largely over the Bay are added benefits. The Stanford Life Flight helicopter has been based here, and saving lives, since 1984. Excellent management by the City these past 9 years is paying big dividends. Moving toward unleaded fuel and, eventually, electric aircraft are leadership positions to be proud of, as will be a large solar-power field. The Palo Alto Airport is a City success story, thanks to Council votes over the past 20 years.

Posted by John M
a resident of another community
on Mar 7, 2023 at 2:51 pm

John M is a registered user.

Thanks for the article.. I wanted to respond to a few of the comments above.. First, fuel without lead hasn't been available anywhere in the Bay Area until brought to Reid Hillview by pilots in 2020. With the arrival of UL94 at Palo Alto in May, the vast majority of operations will be lead-free, and unleaded hundred octane fuel is coming to California this year, which will enable a complete elimination of lead from aviation gasoline, and eliminate that excuse for wanting to close airports. The activity count is maintained by the FAA Control Tower, and reflects each takeoff or landing. Those numbers are verifiable through the FAA. And planes aren't taking off at night to fly to the eastern US, as the short runway means planes aren't likely to travel more than a few hundred miles at a time. More likely is that they are training flights required by the FAA to be conducted after dark. And the airport isn't for
"rich hobbyists".. It is a critical transportation gateway to Palo Alto, Stanford Hospitals and local businesses, as well as a training facility for careers and a hub for emergency services.. The Federal money supporting the airport is only available for airport capital projects, and could never be diverted to Cubberly.. As aviation goes electric and urban air mobility becomes reality, the airport will become increasingly important to the community.

Posted by PA resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 7, 2023 at 4:54 pm

PA resident is a registered user.

The problem with Palo Alto accepting FAA funding is that it gives up its ability to control many airport operations - including what fuel may be sold, permissible altitudes, fee structures, and whether or not the airport should remain open. The FAA is currently harassing the County of Santa Clara for its decision to ban leaded fuel at Reid-Hillview and San Martin Airports (after a study showed alarming blood levels of lead in children living nearby) and intent to close the airports by 2030. Although the EPA banned leaded fuel for cars decades ago, the FAA for years has blocked efforts to do the same with respect to aircraft; it has only itself to blame for the delayed availability of unleaded aviation gas. Contrary to one comment, many if not most take-offs are over East Palo Alto, and arrivals occur over Palo Alto neighborhoods, with final descents over Bixbee Park and its ecosystem. The 152,000 of operations include 'touch and go's,' where planes repeatedly take off and land, flying around and around the airport. I do applaud Council's desire to reduce lead emissions and noise. And maybe the new focus on sustainability and solar/electric aircraft leadership will reap measurable rewards, but maybe not. I think the City should provide details about who uses/benefits from the airport. But to date, a convincing case has not been made for why the City should continue to subsidize the airport, subject surrounding areas to noise and emissions, and bind itself to FAA control.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 7, 2023 at 5:30 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

My question has to do with where the electricity is going to come from? Saying that it is solar doesn't really work when solar doesn't work at night (when many planes would want to charge) or in cloudy weather!

Palo Alto can't keep reliable service for its customers already and the increase in buildings and the increase in EVs as well as the so called call to convert all homes from gas appliances and heating means that the drain on our electricity supply is already being questioned. On top of that, many of us remember the 10 hours plus of no power due to one power tower being hit in the Baylands. East Palo Alto, in February, was without power for more than 2 days and part of the fix was to close down 101 in both directions. In summer days, we are told to charge our devices overnight and to refrain from using electricity when we arrive home in the evenings to protect the grid. If the grid is that susceptible from failure, why advocate for a bigger drain on it?

Can we first fix our electricity supply reliability before we try and become leaders in anything?

Posted by Palo Alto native
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2023 at 7:15 am

Palo Alto native is a registered user.

Stop this toxic dumping of noxious fumes and fine particulate matter over me and my family. We don’t live in Palo Alto to be under the large jets flying into SFO OR the small planes into PAO. Isn’t there hypocrisy that the CC has been trying for 7+ years to speak with FAA about lessening noise and fine particulate matter from opeeeeations flying into SFO all the while working hand in hand with the FAA to maximize operations with the FAA here in our City. DONT BUILD A NEW CONTROL TOWER to increase what is now the 4th largest airport h we’re in the B as y Area!! where are our once quiet, peaceful, clean skies……….

Posted by John M
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2023 at 9:09 am

John M is a registered user.

I just have to respond to PA Resident above who urges the City to stop "subsidizing" the airport. Apparently they did not read the article closely, as it states clearly that the airport is generating a $600,000.00 profit in revenue greater than expenses.. That sounds to me like a community asset that should be appreciated.. And the people complaining about pollutants from airline aircraft into SFO and small aircraft into Palo Alto must somehow be oblivious to the 4 lanes of polluting automobile traffic chugging up and down the Bayshore freeway next to their homes.. Those worried about airborne pollution should actually read the EPA and BAAQMD and UC Berkeley studies around lead and air pollution, which found Reid Hillview harmless and lead levels a long way below "alarming". In fact, the county's own data shows higher levels of lead in blood in children in several zip codes far from airports, attributable to the real problem: lead in paint and plumbing...

Posted by staying home
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2023 at 10:16 am

staying home is a registered user.

I think this is great. This is what Palo Alto is famous for, working to be on the leading edge of technology.

This is also classic Palo Alto online comment board, always finding something to complain about. "But what about Cubberly!" "Loud planes!"

Posted by Joseph H
a resident of another community
on Mar 8, 2023 at 6:45 pm

Joseph H is a registered user.

"First, fuel without lead hasn't been available anywhere in the Bay Area until brought to Reid Hillview by pilots in 2020."

Unleaded fuel has been available at the San Carlos Airport since 2014. In fact, San Carlos Airport was for some time the only airport west of the Mississippi that sold unleaded aviation fuel.

Posted by memsman
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 9, 2023 at 11:01 am

memsman is a registered user.

PAO is primarily for rich hobbyists who either fly around site seeing or do thousands of ‘touch and go’ operations to log hours. Talk about a waste of fuel! Training should/is mostly done in simulators. Training centers should be away from populated areas.

I am fine with the airport being used for Life Flights and Helicopter refueling. But these make up a tiny portion of the operations at PAO.

A big irritant to me is the joy riding stunt plane (striped wings you can see from the ground). It is outrageously loud, louder than any other plane. Tracking shows it either circles around or goes to HMB for the afternoon. Why can’t there at least be limits to such exceptionally loud airplanes? There is no effective complaint system at PAO. Complaints get canned responses ‘we can’t tell pilots what to do’. All noise abatement is ‘voluntary’.

The FAA is a captive agency to airline interests. As stated by others, taking FAA money obligates the city to keep the airport open and a number of other requirements. The city has given up control.

The phase out of leaded fuel has been discussed for 10 years and is way overdue.

Yes, use the PAO land for solar. But this doesn’t require air traffic. How about affordable housing on that land? Electric planes are a ways off (Web Link and the first ones will be commuter planes for short flights – guess what, bigger (and probably noiser) planes. May not even be able to land at PAO under current conditions. It’s unlikely we’ll see electric ‘one and two seaters’ any time soon. I’m sure we can all afford this ‘Air’ plane from Israel: Web Link

I’d like to see a list of who actually uses the airport. I’m sure it’s a small number of people, imposing their noise and pollution.

Posted by Alice Schaffer Smith
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 11, 2023 at 4:21 pm

Alice Schaffer Smith is a registered user.

The airport is a nuisance, biological disaster.

The baylands are one of the most biodiverse areas in the country.

End the airport licenses and close it down. Restore the baylands to their natural condition.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

In order to encourage respectful and thoughtful discussion, commenting on stories is available to those who are registered users. If you are already a registered user and the commenting form is not below, you need to log in. If you are not registered, you can do so here.

Please make sure your comments are truthful, on-topic and do not disrespect another poster. Don't be snarky or belittling. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

See our announcement about requiring registration for commenting.

Stay informed.

Get the day's top headlines from Palo Alto Online sent to your inbox in the Express newsletter.