Sunnyvale Air Traffic

Last night, Mayor Hendricks and I attended a community outreach meeting organized by Congresswoman Eshoo, Congressman Farr, and the FAA, to discuss changes to air traffic in the Bay Area and possible mitigation to the increased noise being generated by the new routes.  This was provoked by a massive surge in complaints to the FAA coming from the mid-peninsula cities, which previously were largely undisturbed by overflights, but which can now actually hear them on a regular basis.  Congresswoman Eshoo and others formed a Select Committee consisting of multiple elected officials from throughout the congresspersons’ two districts.  Saratoga and Los Altos Hill’s have representatives, chosen by the Cities Association of Santa Clara County.  Sunnyvale has no representation, since we’re not in those districts, although the Committee is being run by County Supervisor Joe Simitian, whose District 5 includes half of Sunnyvale.  The meeting was attended by a good 500 people, and there were easily 200 speakers.

In response to these issues, better than a dozen citizen advocacy groups have formed, with names like “Quiet Skies Palo Alto”, “Sky Posse Los Altos”, and so on.  They’ve formed a loose coalition, and they have jointly forwarded recommendations to the Select Committee, ranging from changes in air routes to changes in airport process and even changes to specific airplane models.

This is where it gets interesting for Sunnyvale.

One of the recommendations being forwarded by a number of these groups is the very innocuous and reasonable-sounding statement “choose air routes that make full use of the Bay”.  The logic behind this is pretty simple – the more time airplanes spend flying over water, the less time they spend flying over residential areas.  And that sounds like a great idea to most people – until you see what it actually means:


Yup, you got that right.  They want to move as much of the mid-peninsula air traffic as possible over San Jose, Sunnyvale, and Mountain View.  You can guess how Mayor Hendricks and I responded to that particular idea.

Now before you start thinking this is just one very large but isolated incident, it gets worse.

A couple of weeks ago, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors convinced the FAA to look into noise issues related to the San Carlos Airport. Again, residents near that airport have been complaining about one specific air service flying prop planes over their homes.  In response to this, the FAA agreed to do a six-month test, redirecting that service’s overflights away from San Mateo County.

And as you probably guessed, they’ll be flying over Sunnyvale.  Again, the logic is “let them take full advantage of the Bay”.

At this point, you’re probably saying to yourself “why didn’t our elected officials step up and speak out about this proposal?  They’re supposed to be protecting our interests!”

The simple answer is – we were never told about it.  The San Mateo County Supervisors and the FAA hatched this plan, which goes into effect on July 5th, and they never contacted the City of Sunnyvale.  And naturally, since this involves an airport in a different city in a different county, our city staff had no reason to be monitoring those discussions, and no way of even knowing they were taking place until the decision had been made.  We only learned of this when a Sunnyvale resident read the Palo Alto Online article and forwarded it to us.  In fact, the article even quotes one San Mateo County Supervisor who expressed concern that the affected cities should be contacted.  That still hasn’t happened, and the change takes effect on Tuesday.

Apparently, folks in other cities have decided that Sunnyvale should become the dumping ground for all of their airplane overflight issues.

And this doesn’t just affect Sunnyvale.  It will affect San Jose, Santa Clara, and Mountain View as well.

Yeah, I’m pretty angry, hence the presence of the Mayor, City Manager, and myself at last night’s Select Committee meeting.  The other two were pretty calm and collected in their presence and in Glenn’s comments.  Me, not so much.  I personally waited four hours for my speaker card to be selected, so I could make it clear that “just moving air traffic to Sunnyvale” isn’t a “solution” to air traffic noise – it simply foists one city’s inconvenience onto another city.  Thankfully, we weren’t alone in expressing this opinion.  Other groups in other cities are faced with similar proposed changes and were supportive of the point that “moving noise” isn’t a mitigation.

Airports are regional assets to any community, but they do bring with them regional costs, be they air noise, pollution and environmental issues, public safety issues, hazards to wildlife, or whatever.  If we as a region want the benefits that come from having airports, then we as a region must be willing to accept those costs too, while certainly doing everything reasonable to minimize and mitigate those costs.  For any community to say “I want to benefit from airports, but I’m not willing to take on any of the associated costs”, well, that’s just the worst form of NIMBYism.  And as harsh as that may sound, Sunnyvale has graciously borne the cost of Moffett Airfield for decades.  We’ve borne more of the regional cost of our airports than pretty much any other city, save San Jose.  That gives us the moral high ground to push back against some of the stronger NIMBYism that is getting mixed in with some real concerns about the recent FAA changes, and call it what it really is.

My point with this post is a simple one – we need to be engaged in this process, and we need to speak our minds.  At this point, that means contacting Supervisor Joe Simitian, who is not only on the Select Committee but is also our only elected representative involved in the process.  It also means contacting Congresswoman Eshoo, who is largely driving this particular process to gather community feedback.  Congresswoman Eshoo used to represent Sunnyvale, and she’s been the driving force in protecting us regarding Moffett Field.  I’m confident that she will be supportive of Sunnyvale’s concerns, if they’re expressed in a thoughtful and concerted way.

We also need to be aware of new planes, and speak up when they bother us.  Obviously, Moffett is Moffett.  But if you think things are getting worse, or if you’re disturbed by planes that you don’t normally see, you need to speak up.  The FAA is clearly taking the position that silence is acquiescence, and that works against us.

Related, I had a hard time not laughing out loud at some of last night’s speakers.  Speakers complained that planes were getting within 4000′, 5000′, and even 9000′ of their homes, which is amusing since Sunnyvale overflights can drop below 1000′ – whether or not you actually live under the approach.  I got buzzed by two F-15s Monday night, and I’m not even under the Moffett approach.  One lady commented that some of these passenger jets get so low over her home that she can “make out the plane’s color”.  Sunnyvale residents can often make out tail numbers on our overflights.  They’re dealing with passenger jets at 9000′, while we regularly cope with C130s and Pave Hawks doing touch-and-go’s at virtual spitting distance from our homes.  Living in Sunnyvale creates an entirely different perspective on airplane noise from the other mid-peninsula cities.  Some of the folks I heard last night wouldn’t make it through a single night in a SNAIL or Lowlanders single-family home.

Obviously we knew what we were signing up for regarding Moffett when we bought our homes.  But we never signed up to bear the noise burden of Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Atherton, and all of those other cities.  And we shouldn’t be expected to do so.  We need to make that clear to the decision-makers.

Comments are closed.