An airline industry consulting firm, hired by the town of Portola Valley, is skeptical of a Federal Aviation Administration's proposal to analyze noise generated by aircraft crossing the Santa Cruz Mountains on the way into San Francisco International Airport.
In a seven-page letter to the FAA, unanimously approved by the Town Council on Jan. 13, Williams Aviation Consultants of Gilbert, Arizona, used the word "unfortunately" seven times. According to the consultant, the FAA's proposal "unfortunately:"
■ Does not specify completion dates for the FAA's noise analysis.
■ Does not specify which aircraft operations procedures would be analyzed.
■ Does not show intentions of including the Portola Valley, Woodside and Ladera communities in the analysis of the area around the aircraft navigation beacon in the hills above Woodside.
■ Does not account for the unready state of technology expected to lessen noise-generating routines by pilots.
■ Does not commit the FAA to involving itself with the public, at least not during the first phase of the initiative.
In a staff report, interim Town Manager Debbie Pedro put the cost of the letter at $3,500, about a fourth of a $13,000 budget approved by the council to engage a consultant skilled in the language and practices of the airline industry and its regulator, the FAA.
Years of complaints
Residents in and around Portola Valley have been complaining to the FAA and airport officials for many years about the altitude, frequency and noise of commercial aircraft flying into SFO.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, extracted an agreement with the FAA in 2001 that requires arriving aircraft to stay at least 8,000 feet above sea level when passing over the navigation beacon in the Woodside hills. But flights continue to violate that minimum altitude despite another letter from Ms. Eshoo in 2005.
Air-traffic authorities have argued that noise management is secondary to traffic management in a crowded airspace, and that air-traffic controllers need flexibility in three-dimensional space in order to keep aircraft at a safe distance from each other.
An analysis of 2009-12 data by Portola Valley resident Dr. Tina Nguyen, Woodside resident Jim Lyons and others showed 88 percent of flights overflying the beacon at altitudes below 8,000 feet, and about 28 percent below 6,000 feet. An experienced commercial pilot, asked in 2012 about this specific behavior, told the Almanac that noise-abatement policies such as an 8,000-foot minimum are a low priority for pilots and air-traffic controllers.
In 2014, the FAA released a draft environmental impact report about plans to optimize use of the airspace in Northern California, including "new" routes into major Bay Area airports. The report projected airport arrival routes out to 2019 and found no significant noise impacts on the ground, a claim disputed by local activists.
Portola Valley council members have made efforts toward a dialogue by attending airport community roundtable discussions, by visiting an air-traffic control center, and by spending an evening in a workshop with FAA officials, all to no apparent avail.
In 2015, Ms. Eshoo and two of her Congressional colleagues from the Peninsula questioned the FAA about noise issues, and the agency responded in November with its proposal to "address noise concerns" in the four counties west of SFO.
The FAA invited comments on their proposal, and the Portola Valley council asked Williams Aviation to draft a point-by-point response.
Councilwoman Ann Wengert complimented Dr. Nguyen on her efforts in working with Williams. They did "as good a job as they could with a report that wasn't designed to really be commented on in the way we were asked to do," Ms. Wengert said.
"Is there really going to be the ability to impact what the FAA has already embarked on?" she asked rhetorically. "There is a fair amount of cynicism, given (the FAA's) past history. ... I think we did the best we could do in making sure we gave Anna sufficient ammunition in her efforts on our behalf."
Go to this link and turn to Page 117 for the full report, including the letter and the FAA proposal.