FAA committee: Scrap existing flight path

Procedural changes, higher altitudes could help reduce local aircraft noise

A committee tasked with recommending ways to reduce airplane noise over the Midpeninsula voted recently in favor of a new flight path similar to one in place before March 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration changed it.

The Select Committee on South Bay Arrivals voted to recommend improvements but not to eliminate the FAA's NextGen system, which has been causing loud and incessant flights over Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and other cities from the coast to the bay.

The 12-member committee, chaired by Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, spent four months analyzing proposals that often divided communities from Santa Cruz to South San Francisco in a tug-of-war over flight paths and waypoints (fixed points that planes must fly over at particular altitudes). In the end, the committee's 44-page report explored a series of ideas ranging from changing nighttime flight hours to rerouting planes along different tracks.

Recommendations on two items, moving the flight path for southern arrivals to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and establishing a minimum altitude for the MENLO waypoint, were the most highly anticipated at the committee's final meeting on Nov. 17.

The biggest moment came when the committee recommended eliminating the much-reviled SERFR route for planes arriving to SFO from the south. They voted on an amendment by Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Leopold to essentially return to the historical Big Sur (BSR) flight path, which followed from a point in the Monterey Bay northward.

In March 2015, the FAA moved the flight path three miles to the east, renaming it SERFR. The new path was to be flown using Optimal Profile Descent procedure, which uses idle power during descent to reduce noise and save fuel. But the procedure was never used. It conflicted with restricted airspace around SFO, which is designed to ensure a higher level of safety for arriving aircraft.

Instead, pilots flying the new SERFR route had to use engine thrust and "speed braking" to slow planes down, creating noise. SFO received more than a million complaints regarding the SERFR route, according to the Select Committee’s report.

“This is the most important part of the entire report,” San Mateo County Supervisor Dave Pine said of the debate regarding moving back to the Big Sur track. "This has been extraordinarily difficult. (The committee) received more than 4,000 emails."

Leopold introduced an amended document supporting the Big Sur track with three recommendations. The route was highly favored by a large contingent of Santa Cruz County residents, but not those living in the San Lorenzo Valley near Felton, nor by Palo Altans, who said the route was not a complete match with the original Big Sur flight path and they feared it could create noise over a larger number of people. The Santa Cruz contingent maintained there would be no greater noise effects.

The document passed, but four Select Committee members voted against the Big Sur shift: Simitian, South San Francisco Mayor Mark Addiego, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, and City of Santa Cruz Councilman Don Lane.

Seeking to narrow the rift, Simitian then suggested that committee members discuss each of the many points within the Big Sur item, which were grouped into three recommendations.

Although the committee was not going to take a second vote on the Big Sur path, taking votes on each of the recommendations might serve to bring the group closer to consensus and eliminate any lingering concerns, he said.

The three areas of recommendations included criteria and procedures; follow-up analysis of the effectiveness of lowering noise levels; and a longer-term look at changing the flight path.

Those recommendations, which included the following points, were each unanimously approved:

• Developing new procedures using satellite-based navigation and the Optimal Profile Descent to reduce noise levels

• Crossing the coastal mountains at no lower than 12,500 feet

• Modifying the restricted airspace so that planes would not "vector" -- go off the flight path to be properly sequenced for arrivals

• Move another waypoint further into Monterey Bay

• Use the noise-reducing navigation procedures over Santa Clara and San Mateo counties past the MENLO waypoint (a spot near Willow Road and the Dumbarton Bridge)

• Raise the altitudes of planes crossing at MENLO; develop procedures that have an equivalent or lower noise level along the entire route when compared to the noise level of Big Sur prior to NextGen

• Use flight altitudes at least as high as the historical Big Sur route along the entire route length

• Use a new Big Sur waypoint at or above 6,000 feet to ensure that flights will cross the MENLO waypoint at or above 5,000 feet

• Limit the future capacity of the number of planes on the route.

• Within three months of implementing the new route and procedures, the FAA should meet with an ad-hoc subcommittee to review whether the new procedure has met the lower noise levels along the entire route. FAA should also work with a permanent committee and local communities to make adjustments to reduce noise.

• The FAA should work with a permanent committee and the community to develop a new flight path to potentially modify or replace Big Sur that would take advantage of flying over nonresidential and unpopulated areas, such as cemeteries, parkland, industrial areas and mountains, the committee recommended.

A separate amendment regarding the MENLO waypoint by Portola Valley Councilwoman Ann Wenger also passed unanimously. It recommended many of the same points as those outlined in the Big Sur item: keeping flights 5,000 feet or higher over MENLO; raising altitude at another waypoint so that flights can hit the targeted altitude when they get to MENLO. But it also recommended the FAA review whether the angle of planes can be increased so they can glide in at higher altitudes.

The recommendation also asks FAA to evaluate using new or existing waypoints to reroute South Bay arrivals over water or sparsely populated areas. But the committee specifically did not recommend replacing MENLO with any waypoint if it only results in shifting noise.

The entire report can be found here.

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