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Hey Area: Why do planes flying over the Peninsula sound so much louder these days?

Audrey Dilling
Palo Alto resident Roland Finston points to a plane flying over his street. Finston reached out to KALW's "Hey Area" project to ask what could be done about the increase in plane noise.


Marie-Jo Fremont pays a lot of attention to the sky these days.

She lives in Palo Alto and works as an independent business consultant, but she’s also become something of an armchair air traffic controller in the past year – or, perhaps, a lawn chair one. Sitting in her front yard, she demonstrates the app she uses to track the many planes flying over her house.

“This is a Southwest Boeing 737,” she says, pointing to the screen of her smartphone. “It flew at 4541 feet.”

Tracking planes isn’t actually Fremont’s passion; it’s just something she started doing when she noticed a lot more of them flying over her house than usual back in March of 2015.

“I remember one day I was working from home and I was on the phone with some people for work and they said, ‘Is there a plane crashing?’ And I said, ‘No, it's just an airplane going over.’”

Fremont’s neighbors started noticing the noise, too. And lest you forget that this issue is taking place over the heart of Silicon Valley, there’s another app that collects complaints about loud planes. Those get forwarded to the SFO Noise Abatement Department, which has seen complaints rise from about 1,200 per month in 2014 to more than 250,000 in one month in 2016.

Marie-Jo Fremont says she contributes anywhere from 20 to 40 of those complaints per day. Though, the previous day, she says, “I contributed 63, because I was going nuts yesterday.”

Palo Alto residents like Marie-Jo Fremont, concerned about the increased noise, banded together to form “SkyPosse” – a group that advocates for quieter skies. This may sound like classy NIMBY-ism, but Fremont says she has “never complained to the city of Palo Alto in [her] life.”

The flight noise isn’t just an annoyance, it’s a health risk linked to heart problems in people over 65 years old and learning difficulties for schoolchildren.

“Elderly people say we no longer even walk in our neighborhood. So we're prisoners in our home,” Fremont says. “Kids are tired, cannot do their homework, cannot sleep at night.”

This is not just happening in Palo Alto. Reports about excessive airplane noise have started surfacing in places that have never been bothered before, like Santa Cruz, 60 miles from SFO.

What happened?

In March of 2015, right when Fremont and her neighbors started noticing the planes, the Federal Aviation Administration (F.A.A.) launched a new program at SFO called NextGen.

“In a nutshell, NextGen is the evolution from a radar-based air traffic control system, to a satellite-based air traffic control system,” says Ian Gregor, Public Affairs Manager for the F.A.A.’s Pacific Division.

Essentially, air traffic controllers used to use radar, or radio waves, to figure out where the planes were in the sky. NextGen uses something more like GPS, which Gregor says is more precise and makes it safe to fly planes closer together than ever before. It also means more planes can take the most efficient route to the runway, which “concentrates traditionally dispersed flight tracks into a narrower band.”

Gregor says this creates a more efficient air traffic control system. “We're seeing very significant benefits throughout the country,” he says.

Airlines are saving on fuel costs and passengers are taking off and landing on time more often. Not just at SFO, but at the dozens of airports around the country using NextGen.

Problems on the ground

Of course, not everyone is wowed by this. Since NextGen started cropping up at airports, things on the ground have gotten turbulent.

The city of Phoenix is currently suing the F.A.A. over plane noise related to changes in flight paths. In Boston, local Congressman Steve Lynch tried to slash the F.A.A’s communications budget in Congress after the agency failed to respond to complaints about noise near the Logan airport.

And in the Bay Area, local groups like SkyPosse in Palo Alto started forming to rally against the noise. But because the planes are flying over multiple cities and counties, it soon became clear that a region-wide approach was necessary.

A committee of city officials and congress members from San Mateo, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz counties has formed to find a solution that works for everyone. They met for the first time in early May in a conference room hidden behind the Starbucks in Terminal 2.

“It'll be very interesting to see this exercise in democracy really work, and I think it will,” said Congresswoman Jackie Speier at the committee’s first meeting on May 6, 2016.

Speier is no stranger to airport issues – she represents San Mateo County, which includes SFO. But, she says there is a new component to the Select Committee proceedings that previous airport dealings have lacked.

“[The] F.A.A., for the first time in a long time has shown a willingness to roll up its sleeves to try and solve these noise issues, and they are real,” Speier said.

Last month, the F.A.A. released a feasibility study outlining possible changes that could be made safely to the flight paths into SFO. The Select Committee will take a look at those options and decide which ones will bring about the most satisfying noise reduction for the most people regionwide. The process could take several months.

In the meantime, for those of you along the Peninsula, you might consider picking up a comfy lawn chair and a new hobby.

This story came from a listener suggestion to KALW’s Hey Area project, which asks what you want to know about the Bay Area. Do you have a question you’d like one of our reporters to investigate? Ask it below!


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