For some residents of Portola Valley, Woodside and nearby communities, the current level of commercial aircraft noise in the skies above may lessen as the years go by, but it just as easily may not.
A draft environmental impact report from the Federal Aviation Administration on optimizing airspace and flight procedures in Northern California describes "new" routes into major Bay Area airports. The report was published March 25 and is about halfway through a 30-day comment period. The current routes are not precisely adhered to in practice. The proposed routes are new only to the extent that they are intended to mimic actual routes now in use by pilots.
Nevertheless, publication of the report is an opportunity for residents of Portola Valley and other noise-affected Peninsula communities to speak to the FAA about noise abatement. Whether the FAA will listen and respond is another matter. Safety and efficiency are its highest priorities, Portola Valley Mayor Ann Wengert said. Noise is a consideration but not a top priority, she said.
Ms. Wengert represents Portola Valley at the SFO Airport/Community Roundtable, which meets regularly and includes representatives from the FAA and many Peninsula communities. Woodside is represented by Mayor Dave Burow. The roundtable, according to its mission statement, "attempts to achieve noise mitigation through a cooperative sharing of authority among the aviation industry, the FAA, SFO management and local government."
"It's a very interesting dynamic," Ms. Wengert said. "If you or I were in (the FAA's shoes), there would be priorities we would want to implement as well. ... They are not required to even respond to comments, but they have said that they likely will (this time)."
"This will be a serious test of how much impact citizen groups can have," she continued. "If (residents) have comments, this is the time."
Go to this link to comment and to access the entire FAA report.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, extracted an agreement in 2001 with the FAA that requires arriving aircraft to stay at least 8,000 feet above sea level when passing over a navigation beacon in the Woodside hills. Arriving flights continue to violate that minimum altitude despite another letter from Ms. Eshoo in 2005.
Some 23,000 arriving flights crossed over the Woodside beacon in 2012, according to Portola Valley resident Vic Schachter and unincorporated Woodside resident Jim Lyons. Between May 2005 and February 2010, the average altitude of flights dropped to 6,600 feet from 7,500 feet, while the number of flights rose by 70 percent, they said. Between January 2009 and May 2012, more than 88 percent of flights crossed at altitudes below 8,000 feet, with about 28 percent lower than 6,000 feet.
"There is no firm requirement that airplanes fly at 8,000 feet over the Woodside (beacon)," FAA spokesman Ian Gregor has told the Almanac. "Northern California controllers have noise abatement Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and use them when traffic volume permits. Often, however, traffic volume prevents us from using them. ... While we keep almost all SFO arrivals at 8,000 feet at night, it is not possible to keep all SFO arrivals at that altitude during the day because that would create conflicts with other aircraft using that busy airspace."
Commercial pilot Chris Zwingle spoke to the Almanac shortly after retiring in 2012. "Nothing of what (the roundtable) works on is communicated to the pilots who operate the aircraft. Nothing," he said. "Pilots have and always have had complaints about noise-abatement-driven procedures. ... Not only is it (noise abatement) not going to happen, it's never going to happen."
The FAA has some explaining to do, according to Mr. Lyons and Portola Valley resident Tina Nguyen. The two have written to their congressional representatives.
The draft report describes routes into SFO from the south that, if followed precisely and consistently, would mean a lot of noise for residents of Ladera and Portola Valley. But if the proposed routes are just a more realistic presentation of the routes now in use, the FAA's proposals would only codify them.
The Almanac obtained a copy of Mr. Lyons and Ms. Nguyen's letter to Ms. Eshoo and Congresswoman Jackie Speier. In it, they note that they are "deeply concerned" about the proposed new routes "since its two flight path options converge directly over Portola Valley, specifically over the neighborhood of Ladera."
The FAA report concludes that the proposed routes "would not result in a significant noise impact," but Mr. Lyons and Ms. Nguyen say the report's noise data is flawed because it is derived from a computer model, not from actual noise monitors on the ground, and because it does not account for higher-than-average ground levels in the Portola Valley area.
Monitors were used by SFO's Noise Abatement Office in a four-month analysis in 2012 of noise levels in Woodside and Portola Valley. Those levels are significantly lower than the base levels cited in the report. If the report's levels are the accurate ones, the proposed routes would increase noise by between 57 percent and 62 percent, Ms. Nguyen and Mr. Lyons say.
The FAA should have accounted for these discrepancies in their calculations, Mr. Lyons said. "Two completely different answers?" he said. "Something's wrong."
The FAA has said it will have answers to these questions on April 17, Mr. Lyons told the Almanac. That would leave the community seven days to comment.
The roundtable has asked the FAA for a 60-day extension to the 30-day comment period. Thirty days is the minimum allowable, Ms. Wengert said. "Clearly, it is not designed to allow a robust comment period," she said.
Ms. Eshoo and Ms. Speier, on April 4, wrote to Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, in reference to the unanswered questions in Ms. Nguyen and Mr. Lyons' letter and urged him to instruct the FAA to grant the requested extension.
"As things stand at the moment, the 30-day time period would be nearly exhausted before this critically needed information would become publicly available," they wrote. "The altitude of airplanes over communities heavily influences how much noise is imposed upon residents."