Almanac

News - November 16, 2011

Pilots violate altitude limits, Portola Valley complains

by Dave Boyce

With thousands of inbound commercial flights a year now passing over parts of Woodside and Portola Valley, frustration with aircraft noise has boiled over about what appears to be routine violation of an agreed-upon 8,000-foot floor for planes destined for airports in San Francisco and Oakland.

The Portola Valley Town Council at its Wednesday, Nov. 9, meeting, gave its unanimous consent to send a letter of complaint to Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, who was instrumental in 2000 in arranging an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration to establish the altitude limits.

Exhibit A for the council was a 10-page letter to the FAA by James E. Lyons, a resident of unincorporated Woodside along Skyline Boulevard at an elevation of 2,300 feet. Mr. Lyons cites evidence of a 13.5 percent increase in flights over his house in three years, more than 21,000 per year now, and aircraft that should be 8,000 feet above sea level averaging 6,712 feet, implying that there are also flights below that average.

They can be disrupting. In 2009 and 2010, 244 incoming flights passed over Mr. Lyons' house between 4 and 5 a.m. at altitudes of less than 6,000 feet, he said. (The noise abatement office at the San Francisco International Airport provides altitudes for flights passing over an aircraft navigation beacon in Woodside, but only between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.)

The council's letter to Ms. Eshoo, drafted by outgoing Councilman Steve Toben, alleges 11 years of stonewalling during meetings of the SFO Community Roundtable in response to requests for altitude data on all flights. (The roundtable is affiliated with the noise abatement office.)

"They have essentially acted to shield the FAA from inquiries by citizens and cities affected by aircraft noise," Mr. Toben wrote to Ms. Eshoo.

Also cited is a recent San Mateo County grand jury report that found roundtable effectiveness "diminishing." Recommendations included chairing the roundtable with elected officials and providing data on individual violations of noise regulations as opposed to averages.

The grand jury focused on noise from SFO takeoffs affecting North County communities. The word "departure" occurs 19 times in the six-page report. The word "arrival" is absent, as are "Portola Valley" and "Woodside."

The letter to Ms. Eshoo includes nine detailed questions. Among the concerns: flight paths over the southern part of the county; why altitude restrictions apply only to flights originating from the west; a "traffic permitting" dispensation from the 8,000-foot floor; and a request for FAA data on non-conforming flights.

The FAA's Western regional administrator, William C. Withycombe, responding to Mr. Lyons in a Nov. 4 letter, called the airspace around the navigational beacon "one of the most congested in the nation."

"There are no simple solutions to this complex issue," Mr. Withycombe wrote. "The burden of aircraft noise must be shared by all members of the community."

"We are committed to reducing noise, but it is not an acceptable environmental practice to move flight tracks from one community to another for the sole purpose of shifting noise away from the old community onto the new community," he added.

Using an "optimum configuration," flight paths with lower altitudes reduce engine operating hours, fuel consumption and emissions and, studies show, produce lower noise levels, Mr. Withycombe said.

Councilman Toben, asked to comment, noted that the FAA did not address Mr. Lyons' chief complaint — the violation of the 8,000-foot rule — and did address a point Mr. Lyons did not make: that noise be shifted to another community.

Go to tinyurl.com/Noise-SFO for a PDF copy of the grand jury report.

Go to tinyurl.com/Noise-SFO-PV and turn to Page 115 for Mr. Lyons' letter, followed by the letter to Ms. Eshoo.

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