Can't stop the noise
Publication Date: Wednesday Apr 23, 1997

Can't stop the noise

What's behind the sudden increase in complaints from Midpeninsulans about airplanes landing at SFO? Officials say it's a problem of approach. And with air traffic in the Bay Area booming, it's probably going to get worse before it gets better.

by Sara Selis

Thirty years ago, Mike Florio was in the U.S. Navy, stationed aboard the aircraft carrier USS Independence in the North Atlantic. His room was just below the flight deck. "You've never experienced anything until you've had a plane land on your head," said Florio. Now, with planes bound for San Francisco International Airport regularly passing over his home near Marsh Road in Atherton, "I find myself feeling like I'm back on that damned aircraft carrier, and I don't like it," he says.

Alan Mela, a Professorville resident since 1982, last fall began noticing a sharp increase in the number of SFO-bound planes flying over his neighborhood. On a recent Sunday, he noted jets passing every three to four minutes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Several times, the sound has awakened him and his children in the middle of the night.

"I didn't used to notice it much. Now it's become a constant and frequent irritant," Mela says. "Often on weekends, it's the only sound there is-- over the TV, over conversation, whatever. It's degrading our enjoyment of Palo Alto."

For several months Mela recorded the dates and times of the most bothersome flights and reported them to the airport. The response he got, he says, was a series of form letters describing the airport's flight, weather and runway conditions at those times. "Tell me something I don't know," he says. "I know where these flights are. They're right overhead. The whole thing seems ludicrous."

Bill Conwell, a longtime Atherton resident and City Council member, is more familiar than he'd like to be with the issue. For two years he has been the town's nonvoting representative to the Airport/Community Roundtable, a public forum started 15 years ago to deal with residents' concerns about San Francisco International Airport. Over the past year or so, Conwell says, the complaints he's heard from Atherton residents have become more numerous and more desperate.

"A lot of people feel their quality of life is going down the toilet," he says. "People call me at night. Some of them break down crying on the phone. They say they can't sleep anymore at night. I have to feel that this is more than just a mass hysteria."

The complaints from Midpeninsula residents are strikingly similar. SFO-bound planes are passing over their homes with increasing frequency and increasing volume. Whatever the cause, there's no question the Midpeninsula's interest in noise from aircraft landings has increased sharply.

According to the Noise Monitoring Center at SFO, of the 552 noise complaints received in January of this year, 213 came from Atherton. For the 138 households that complained that month, 16 were in Atherton.

(Complaints from other cities including Menlo Park and Palo Alto are not tracked because these communities are considered to be outside the airport monitored areas. But the airport notes that in January it received 109 complaints from 28 households outside of the monitored areas.)

Interest also has soared in getting Atherton, Menlo Park and Palo Alto represented on the Airport/Community Roundtable, a group composed primarily of representatives from central and north San Mateo County communities. (See related story on page XXXX.)

So what's behind the Midpeninsula's sudden interest in airplane noise?

Most seem to agree it's a matter of approach--what route airplanes take in landing at the airport, particularly during bad weather. Planes that were once taken quietly over San Francisco Bay are increasingly being rerouted down the Midpeninsula. And the reason for that? The Bay Area's booming air traffic business.

Right now we have more planes than we know what to do with," said Chuck Weinum, assistant manager for operations at Bay TRACON, one recent morning. Oakland-based Bay TRACON, which stands for Bay Area Terminal Radar Approach Control, is the Bay Area's round-the-clock air-traffic-control hub, responsible for directing all flights coming into and going out of Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose and the smaller airports such as Palo Alto and Moffett Field.

This is the kind of day in which Midpeninsula residents complain that they're getting more flights overhead than usual. The fact is they are.

Because it's overcast, the air space over San Francisco International Airport is more crowded than usual. When visibility is poor, SFO can use only one of the two landing strips. Under good visibility, 60 planes per hour can land at SFO. But on this morning, the number is cut in half. Planes have backed up in the airspace, waiting for their turn to land.

At times such as this, the Federal Aviation Administration is likely to rely on an approach that some residents call the "Woodside-Foster City shortcut," a term the FAA insists is incorrect.

Of the three SFO flight routes that affect the Midpeninsula, the "Point Reyes approach," the term FAA officials prefer, is the one that has changed the most and is now proving most troublesome to Midpeninsula residents.

Point Reyes is the primary approach route for all SFO-bound flights from the Pacific Northwest and for all international flights, except those from the South Pacific. The preferable approach path, from a noise and air-traffic standpoint, has always been to bring planes from Point Reyes down the eastern part of San Francisco Bay, out over the water and away from residential communities. From there the planes are turned back west just a few miles before the airport.

But because of a general increase in Bay Area flight traffic, the FAA says, this down-the-bay route has become congested. And when the weather is bad, the path gets particularly backed up.

In that case, air traffic control alleviates the congestion by bringing some of the Point Reyes planes down west of the bay, roughly along Highway 280, down the Midpeninsula before turning in a northwesterly direction to the airport. The turn is made over Woodside, Redwood City, Atherton, Menlo Park, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto and Foster City, depending on air traffic needs at the time.

While Bay TRACON officials are concerned about the noise impacts of this approach, it's clearly not their primary focus. Their job is to keep planes from colliding.

"You don't make things up as you go along," says Weinum in the dim air traffic control room where 21 air traffic controllers are stationed at all times. "It's very rigid. There's zero flexibility."

Each air traffic controller is like the conductor of a orchestra that is ever changing during the performance. Each controller communicates by radio with six to eight flights at a time. Even the size of planes affects the situation. Large planes need more space and more time to land, creating more backups.

"Our job is to get planes from point A to point B, maintaining a separation of jets and an efficient use of airspace," Weinum says. "Noise mitigation is secondary to all those things."

But some Peninsula residents argue that they are relying on this so-called "shortcut" over the Midpeninsula too often, and they want the use of this route limited.

"They've always had this shortcut, but it used to be the equivalent of a dirt road that you didn't use too often," says Eileen Larsen, mayor of Foster City. "Now it's an eight-lane highway."

FAA officials say the alternate Point Reyes approach has always existed as a valid, published flight path. But they agree that they have been forced to use it more often because there are more flights and the bay approach gets crowded.

"They (pilots) are not violating anything, and no, we're not taking shortcuts," says Mike Fitzgerald, assistant air traffic manager at Bay TRACON. "We still run planes down the bay as much as possible. But there's no way we can take all the planes down there. We start to run out of airspace."

As for requests to change their approach paths to SFO, the FAA says such a move would be difficult because when one flight path is changed, the other paths--bound not just for San Francisco but for other airports--must be changed, too. The FAA describes its flight procedures as "time-tested" and "proven" and unlikely to be easily changed.

And even if the agency wanted to change its Midpeninsula flight paths, by FAA policy it would first have to conduct an environmental assessment and deal with potential environmental impacts.

The problem, Fitzgerald says, is that the public doesn't understand the complexity of directing air traffic. "They say, 'You can move those planes, can't you?' We're saying, 'No, we can't.' But people don't want to hear that."

According to the National Environmental Policy Act, the FAA cannot make flight-path changes that will simply shift noise from one community to another. "'Fly over somebody else's house, not my house,' that's what they're saying," Fitzgerald said. "We're not in the business of moving airplane noise."

Fourteen months ago, the FAA--responding to complaints about early morning flights from Hawaii that enter at Woodside and descend over the Midpeninsula--attempted to change the routing. It tried bringing the planes down over Pacifica instead. Residents near Pacifica, who already were bearing the brunt of considerable takeoff noise, became angry and accused the airport of dumping noise on them.

At an Airport/Community Roundtable meeting in January 1996 to discuss the issue, residents got so rowdy the police had to be called in. After a week of trying the new route, the airport asked the FAA to cancel the change.

Florio takes issue with the suggestion of a "not-in-my-back-yard" mentality. "Don't fall into that trap, that we're these elitist people from Atherton and we want other people to have our noise. That turns this into pitting one community against another. (The FAA) is responsible for routing traffic in ways that don't bother anyone."

Florio suggests, for example, that many flights could be routed to the south, over the Santa Cruz mountains.

Weinum notes that flights from the East Coast use that route, and besides, "those areas are populated, too. Show me where you can live in the Bay Area and not have (flight traffic)."

Remedies for the Midpeninsula's air traffic woes have been proposed to the airport and the FAA, largely through the Airport/Community Roundtable. The suggestions include: bringing approaching flights in higher over the Midpeninsula, keeping them over the bay where they don't trouble neighborhoods, restricting night and early morning landings, and using point-by-point navigation systems to ensure that flights don't stray into residential communities.

But what is clear is the Midpeninsula communities could have a tough time getting the FAA and the airport to take any action.

According to the FAA's official numbers, the Menlo Park-Atherton-Palo Alto area doesn't have a problem. In fact, nothing south of San Mateo and Foster City is even included on the airport's "noise exposure map."

The map refers to an area that, according to federal guidelines, suffers from airplane noise levels considered too high for residential areas. The noise levels are indicated by a complex measurement known as known as CNEL--community noise equivalent level.

CNEL is the measurement used in California to comply with the Aviation Safety and Noise Abatement Act. The 1979 law directed the FAA to establish standard procedures for measuring aircraft noise and to formulate plans to reduce high noise levels in surrounding communities. CNEL represents a logarithmic average of the decibel levels exerted in a particular location over a year. The FAA emphasizes that the measurement is not comparable to decibels.

The threshold established by the FAA for "noise incompatibility" is 65. According to a variance granted to SFO by the state, the airport must take action in residential areas that register a CNEL level of 65 or higher. Those areas include only parts of South San Francisco, San Bruno, Millbrae and Burlingame.

The Midpeninsula, meanwhile, is nowhere near that mark. Its CNEL is around 40, says Ron Wilson, director of public affairs for San Francisco International Airport. Bluntly put, this means the airport has no legal obligations to abate aircraft noise on the Midpeninsula.

Marvin Ellis, the airport's noise abatement officer, says his office has over the past several months measured the decibel level of airplanes passing over a set point in Atherton. The results: A 747 passing over the Atherton location registers at about 60 decibels at about 6,200 feet. Meanwhile, a 737 passing over the area at 4,500 feet registers about 57 decibels.

Sixty decibels is equivalent to conversational speech; 70 decibels is equivalent to office machinery such as a typewriter, and 90 decibels would be the sound of a heavy truck passing by.

"The areas you're getting complaints in are so far out of the contour that most people would say you don't have a problem," says John Pfeifer, district manager of the FAA's airports division. "But obviously somebody there feels they have a problem. That's the crux of the issue: What's an acceptable level (of noise) for one person isn't acceptable to another."

Pfeifer talks about a concept called "psycho-acoustics," the idea that one's experience of sound is influenced by perception. For example, he says, some people are likely to perceive that the flight traffic over their home is louder than before--when in fact it's not--simply because the flights are more frequent and residents are more sensitive to it.

"It (airplane noise) affects people differently," Weinum said. "If you talk about it with your neighbors, it bothers you more."

Affected residents bristle at the suggestion that, at least in part, their perceptions are to blame.

"If I were the FAA, that's the argument I'd use, because it's the only argument they have. It's a bunch of baloney," says Bob Huber, an Atherton resident and City Council member who's been working on the overflights issue. "When I'm woken up at 5 a.m. or 1 a.m., it's certainly not my imagination."

The FAA, meanwhile, cringes at the suggestion of limiting the number of flights. The reason is simple. One of the stated missions of the FAA is to promote the business of aviation. That means landing as many planes as possible within safety guidelines, no matter how much noise they make.

These complaints are being aired at a time when San Francisco International Airport is booming. It's the eighth-busiest in the world, in terms of passengers, and it's also the second-fastest-growing airport in the world. Last year, 39.3 million passengers came in and out of the airport on a total of 427,400 flights, meaning takeoffs and landings. Those numbers are up from 1994, when 34.6 million passengers used the airport in 422,000 takeoffs and landings.

And heavier traffic at Oakland International Airport has added to the overall congestion that is requiring air traffic control to route more planes down the Midpeninsula. Flights--takeoffs and landings--at Oakland rose from 439,000 to a whopping 516,000 between 1993 and 1995.

International traffic is an increasingly visible part of San Francisco International's success. From 1995 to 1996 international flights jumped 10 percent, from 35,500 to 39,000. In the same period the number of international passengers increased 11.7 percent, from 5.9 million to 6.6 million.

While the volume of domestic passengers at the airport is expected to increase about 4 percent annually, Wilson says, the volume of international passengers there should increase by 10 percent per year. International flights, which now account for about 15 percent of all flights at SFO, are expected to continue to drive the airport's growth, particularly flights from the Far East. And as noted earlier, these are often the flights that are brought in over the Peninsula.

"In the past four years we've seen a tremendous change, a real increase, from the Asian market," Wilson said.

That growth is fueling SFO's very visible expansion--a $2.7 billion international terminal now under construction that will house 24 boarding gates and a 3,000-car parking garage. The project should be nearly complete by the year 2000. With the expansion, passenger traffic is expected to increase to 51 million passengers by the year 2006, Wilson said.

That kind of growth, particularly in the international arena, is likely to make noise-conscious Midpeninsulans nervous.

Nearly all international arrivals enter the Bay Area through Point Reyes. A smaller number of flights--about 4 percent of all SFO arrivals--come from the Hawaiian Islands and the South Pacific early in the morning.

Those flights approach the Bay Area at Woodside, near Skyline Boulevard and Highway 84, and travel gradually northeastward over the Midpeninsula. These are often the flights that spark complaints from residents from Palo Alto and Atherton about being awakened at 5 or 6 a.m.

"It's increasingly going to be a global airport, and clocks don't mean much to global airports," Huber says. "Our problem isn't that severe now, but it's going to get worse as we become more global."

Wilson says the number of international flights at SFO won't increase nearly as much as people fear. The number of flights will increase by less than 1 percent. This is because the planes will be larger, carrying more people at a time.

Some might assume that larger planes are always louder, but Ellis said that is not automatically the case. (See related story on page XXX).

In the end, the issue of size versus number of flights is a tradeoff, Pfeifer says. "Which would you rather have: three 737s going by in an hour, or one 747?"

The airport has a curious role in the debate over what constitutes "overflying" a neighborhood and what to do about it. "The airport is morally and legally responsible for the noise that aircraft make," Wilson says. "However, we have no control over their operations. We can't tell the FAA or the airlines how or where to fly."

What role pilots and airlines play in airplane noise is also debatable. The FAA and the airport like to point out that in many cases--particularly using visual approaches--pilots have considerable leeway in choosing where they turn in for landing and when they let down their landing gear (Letting down landing gear as late as possible makes for less noise below.)

"In an area as busy as San Francisco, the pilot actually has little control over where he flies and how," says George Tucker, American Airlines' chief pilot for the San Francisco Bay Area. "Our choices are very limited."

Midpeninsulans trying to prod aviation officials into action say they have become frustrated hearing one or another official say the problem is best dealt with by someone else.

The airport points out that it is not responsible for the volume or flights to SFO or how they get there. But the airport has an important indirect role. Generally the airport director must make a request to the FAA before the agency will change a flight route.

"I'm disillusioned at this point. I don't know who to believe anymore," says Conwell, Atherton's Airport/Community Roundtable representative. "They (airport and the FAA) both deny the authority they're alleged to have."

Officials at the FAA and the airport acknowledge some finger pointing, but they insist that they are listening to and addressing residents' concerns. "We want to do everything we can within safety parameters," Wilson says. "We're not shunning our responsibility."

There are signs of promise. The Airport/Community Roundtable this month completed production of a 10-minute training video designed to educate SFO pilots about altitudes, takeoff and landing techniques they can use to lessen their noise impact. The video won't improve the Midpeninsula's lot much because it focuses mostly on takeoffs. But the roundtable is considering producing another video on approach paths over the Midpeninsula. Another promising development came earlier this month, when SFO Director John Martin sent the FAA a letter, asking the agency to consider raising from 6,000 to 7,000 feet the altitude at which early morning flights from Hawaii and the South Pacific pass over Woodside to begin their descent to SFO.

Bringing the planes in higher could lessen the noise Atherton and Menlo Park residents say regularly disturbs their sleep. Weinum says the altitude change appears feasible. The FAA is working with the airlines to gather data on the impact of such a move.

These developments have been cited as encouraging steps in the right direction. Many residents, though, would like much tougher restrictions not just in the early morning but throughout the night. International flights regularly land at SFO as late as 1:30 a.m.

An Airport/Community Roundtable proposal last month asked the airport to consider restricting landings from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. They point to San Jose International Airport, which has a curfew on all flight operations between 11:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.

SFO points out that it does restrict landings by stage 2 airplanes between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m., but it says it couldn't prohibit all landings during those hours. Airport and FAA officials say their hands are tied by federal policies aimed at promoting free trade. The policy took effect only after San Jose International put its curfew in place.

"If we did that (restrict airport hours), I suspect we'd have an injunction slapped against us by the federal government," Wilson says.

There is a logistical limit to the number of planes that can safely land at a given airport. In SFO's case the limit is determined primarily by runway capacity. But San Francisco International is nowhere near reaching that limit during normal weather conditions. In fact, the number of flights is significantly lower than during the airport's peak year, 1987, when 456,000 planes landed at or took off from San Francisco International.

"For the foreseeable future, there's plenty of wiggle room at SFO," says Tim Pike, public affairs representative for the FAA's northwestern region.

Not only can more planes land at SFO, but many Peninsula officials see that as inherently desirable. "Most communities want to accommodate this (air) traffic," Pfeifer says. "It boosts their economy."

But for some Midpeninsula residents, the airport's growth is a threat, not an asset. What they want is simply fewer planes in the air. "If you follow this out to its logical conclusion, there has to be a limit to the amount of air traffic we can handle," said Mela.

Airport authorities and the FAA suggest residents continue to work with them through the Airport/Community Roundtable. Ultimately, though, they acknowledge that no solutions will please everyone.

"Some people are never going to be happy because they just don't like airplanes," Pfeifer says. "I don't know what to tell them. Maybe they'll just have to learn how to deal with it. We're not going to stop air traffic." 

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