S.F. Turns Up Volume Over Noisy Airport Traffic

The FAA may have to answer for a flight-pattern system it approved in 2014 that’s tortured residents in San Francisco’s southern neighborhoods with sleep-disrupting noises.

As far as residents of parts of the southern neighborhoods are concerned, the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014 traded away their sleep, health, and sanity for corporate airline savings — and they may finally have to answer for it.

Starting four years ago, Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, modernized airplane flights by directing navigation through GPS rather than ground control. But since the system’s implementation, many of the flight patterns (and much of the subsequent noise) from San Francisco and Oakland international airports have become concentrated in the southeastern corner of the city before stretching down the Peninsula.

“It’s basically a freeway in the sky,” says Ivar Satero, San Francisco International Airport’s director.

The same path of streets, blocks, and neighborhoods are consistently affected by a disproportionate amount of daily departing flights that circle over San Francisco at lower altitudes, borne out of NextGen’s efficiency.

Flight track densities in August 2018. (Courtesy SFO)

SFO logged nearly 7,000 departures, including from Oakland International Airport, as flying over the city in August. Supervisor Ahsha Safai, who called for Monday’s rare joint meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Committee and Airport Commission, cited more than 200 flights over a single home in one day.

The FAA is no stranger to these complaints, but it has faced mounting pressure nationwide to respond to them. Some of that response includes the release of a study on noise nuisance, but the agency could wait until 2020 to publicize it, according to Safai’s office.

San Francisco’s say in the matter could be amplified with soon-to-be Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Rep. Jackie Speier — all of who had a staffer at Tuesday’s hearing, and who have submitted various letters to the FAA over the past couple years.

“The impact has been so dramatic in San Francisco that it is something we want to bring attention to now,” Safai says of Pelosi’s probable return to leading the chamber. “We feel like now we’re at a turning point with this abundance of riches in political leadership.”

Satero already sees solutions for those nighttime flights between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., and suggests splitting up their directions and keeping them over the water. Overnight flights accounted for 600 departures above the city in August — and plenty of sleep disruption, as Visitacion Valley resident Elizabeth Lopez knows all too well.

With hints of quiet desperation, Lopez described at the hearing how she has headaches every day, and can’t sleep until 2 a.m. each night. She’s shelled out for custom-made earbuds, visited the doctor, and tried melatonin to sleep through the noise.
“I have a headache right now because it just won’t go away,” Lopez tells SF Weekly. “We aren’t responsible for financing the airline industry.”

Lopez has found kinship in a fatigued-looking group called San Francisco’s Concerned Residents Experiencing Annoying Aircraft Maneuvers, or SCREAAM. As fewer of them find rest, the more they find strength and solidarity in one another.

They’ve since voiced their compounding discomfort to elected officials like Safai through the creation of posters found on their website and Facebook page that read, “These days we’re always in airplane mode” or “Pick up a copy of the new children’s book Where the Loud Things Are.”

The frustration is felt in the broader Bay Area, as Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties have sought to create an airport-noise roundtable. Officials in Palo Alto — where opposition to airplane noise is, well, louder — considered suing the FAA only to opt against it earlier this year.

A five-year FAA reauthorization bill passed in October also requires community involvement for future NextGen projects, partnering with educational institutions to study impacts of airplane noise, and to seek alternative metrics to measure its impacts.

Amidst the grievances and exhaustion, Elizabeth Lewis, an Atherton City Council Member who chairs the SFO Roundtable, offers another message of hope.

“They are hearing our residents, they are hearing our elected officials,” Lewis says of the FAA. “We are not alone in this.”

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