Follow-Up on Airplane Noise

Apparently, my post from a couple of weeks ago about efforts elsewhere to deal with airplane noise caught the attention of a bunch of residents who have been having some issues, as well as others who are not happy with some of the stuff I reported.  So I wanted to post an update on what’s been happening since then.  Hopefully, people can forward this, despite its length.

I’ll start with the time-critical news.  The San Mateo County Supervisors are holding two outreach meetings on airport noise caused by Surf Air and their plans to divert the air routes further over Sunnyvale.  They’ve reached out to Sunnyvale and Mountain View to invite us to attend.  This is short notice, but the first meeting is being held by SMC Supervisor Horsley tomorrow, August 16th, at 6:00 p.m. at the Jennings Pavilion, Holbrook Palmer Park, 150 Watkins Avenue, Atherton, CA 94027.  The second one will be held by Supervisor Slocum Wednesday September 14th at 6:30 p.m. at the (Redwood City) Fair Oaks Community Center, 2600 Middlefield Road, Redwood City, CA 94063.

I’ll add a useful point that may be raised at that meeting, just in case it comes up.  The San Mateo people are claiming that their Surf Air diversion shouldn’t impact Sunnyvale because “Surf Air was already flying over Sunnyvale, and the number of flights haven’t changed”.  Both Mayor Hendricks and I have made the point to them that the diversion causes Surf Air to fly over all of Sunnyvale, rather than just a small part, and to do so at lower altitudes.  So that claim isn’t particularly truthful.

First, in response to what we learned about the San Carlos Airport changes regarding Surf Air, Mayor Hendricks sent a letter to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, in which he pointedly expressed Sunnyvale’s concerns over what has transpired so far, and our outrage that these  changes were made that affect Sunnyvale without Sunnyvale even being informed that a process was taking place.  Copies of the letter were distributed to various parties, including Congressmembers Eshoo and Honda, as well as the two Santa Clara County Supervisors that represent Sunnyvale (Simitian and Cortese).

Shortly after this, I paid a visit to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors and used public comments to express my own pointed concerns over what had transpired regarding Surf Air.  I believe I started by saying something like

Sunnyvale has learned that San Mateo County has recently changed air routes into San Carlos Airport, putting them over Sunnyvale in order to minimize noise over San Mateo County. This change raises several questions, the first of which is, when were you planning on telling Sunnyvale about this?

I learned later that certain elected officials’ staffers have been circulating the video of my comments among themselves…

In response to Mayor Hendricks’ letter or something else, Congresswoman Eshoo also sent a letter to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.  She commended the BOS for being responsive to the concerns of their constituents, but she also stated her opposition to any “solution” to air traffic noise that simply moves the noise to other communities, like Sunnyvale and Mountain View (and she did name us specifically when making her point).  Great letter.

At about the same time, Santa Clara County Supervisors Cortese and Simitian also sent a joint letter to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, expressing the same point of view as Congresswoman Eshoo, and again specifically naming Sunnyvale and Mountain View as the center of their concerns.  Another great letter.

After this, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors sent Sunnyvale a letter, in which they apologized for failing to notify Sunnyvale of their efforts. They then offered to assist with noise monitoring and other such measures within Sunnyvale during the 6-month Surf Air test.

And lask week, our own Congressman Honda set up a joint meeting with himself, Sunnyvale, the FAA, and other involved parties, including San Mateo County, Cupertino, Supervisors Simitian and Cortese, Surf Air, San Carlos Airport, Senator Jerry Hill’s office, Senator Bob Wieckowski’s office, Assemblymember Rich Gordon’s office, and San Jose Airport.   This is obviously the most interesting result for Sunnyvale, and I’ve been waiting until after that meeting to post this. Representing Sunnyvale was Mayor Hendricks, Vice Mayor Larsson, myself, and staff from the City Manager’s office. I went into this meeting wanting to get four questions answered:

  1. Why has air traffic over Sunnyvale, be it from SJC, Moffett, San Carlos, SFO, or elsewhere, changed recently?
  2. Why hasn’t Sunnyvale had a seat at the table for any of the discussions that have taken place so far, and how do we make sure we have a seat in the future?
  3. How can Sunnyvale’s residents get up-to-date information on changes to air traffic over our city?
  4. How can Sunnyvale’s residents best provide feedback on air traffic issues, particularly given that they seem to involve different airports that don’t seem to be talking with each other?

The meeting was a long one, and I can’t hope to recount everything that took place.  The best I can do is attempt to characterize the parties and their positions.


Clearly, we  dominated the discussion, for obvious reasons. We were pointed (and in my case, somewhat angry) in expressing our concerns about what had transpired regarding Surf Air.  Our comments to San Mateo County were blunt, and there is no question that the parties attending this meeting got the message.

We made a couple of specific requests, both to all and privately afterwards.  First, we made it clear that Sunnyvale residents need better information from all parties than we’ve been getting about changes that affect us. Second, we expressed concern about the lack of a single place where residents can report air traffic issues. Residents are being told by Moffett that a problem is an SJC problem, they’re told by SJC that it’s not them, and of course we have no place to report issues with San Carlos. But our residents don’t know which planes relate to which airports, particularly not with Surf Air following an approach over Moffett (making it seem like their planes are Moffett planes).  We nend a single point of contact that can receive complaints and figure out where to forward them. We also need better information so that residents can have a chance at figure out who to complain to.

Third, we made it clear that Sunnyvale expects to be a part of any future discussions or decisions that affect Sunnyvale.

Supervisor Cortese

Supervisor Cortese was present in person.  He was something of a good cop to Sunnyvale’s bad cop (not by design, but by circumstance).  He was completely supportive of Sunnyvale’s concerns without taking the confrontational tone expressed by us Sunnyvale folks. He conveyed to all parties the importance of better collaboration in the future, the need for better information.  I gotta say, Sunnyvale was very well served by Supervisor Cortese in this meeting.

Congressman Honda

Congressman Honda mostly facilitated the discussion, but near the end of the meeting, Congressman Honda expressed the same message (and tone) as Supervisor Cortese.  Congressman Honda and Supervisor Cortese were basically a one-two punch at the end of the meeting that conveyed to certain other parties the importance of doing a whole lot better than they’ve been doing.


I left with a different impression of the FAA than I’d had a week ago.  I’d been considering them the bad guys in all of this, and now I don’t think they are.  The FAA has been chartered to implement the NextGen air traffic solution, and that is their priority.

NextGen is pretty important. Air travel is increasing, and NextGen improves the technology used to route airplanes, to the point that flights are safer, not to mention shorter (which is good for environmental reasons).  And the FAA is focused on best practices for air traffic and airline safety, which is their mission, after all.

Having mostly implemented NextGen, the FAA is sensitive to the impacts on the various communities that are affected by NextGen. But  NextGen is still the FAA’s priority. And while the FAA wants to minimize NextGen’s impacts, they’re not willing to sacrifice NextGen to do so.  For Sunnyvale, that’s a good thing, because the communities that are advocating for moving routes over Sunnyvale are in effect arguing against NextGen.  So the FAA’s defense of NextGen is a good thing for Sunnyvale.

I also think that the FAA got maneuvered into a bad position on the San Carlos issue.  I think they expected other parties to do things (like contact Sunnyvale) that never got done.

Surf Air

Surf Air is basically trying to run a business, and they’re providing technical input to San Carlos Airport and others, but they’re mostly being told what to do.  Having said that, they’re aggressively growing their business, and that is the cause of a lot of grief around San Carlos Airport.  For the most part, they were silent until the end of the meeting.  I’ll add that Surf Air was somewhat defensive about some of the anecdotal reports we gave them (we’ve been hearing about lower overflights than Surf Air claims are occurring).

San Jose Airport

They were mostly silent, since most of the discussion didn’t directly involve them. However, Mayor Hendricks asked them about perceived increases in SJC overflights over Sunnyvale. The representative said he’s not a meteorologist and he didn’t have any statistics. However, he said that SJC routes change over Sunnyvale strictly due to weather conditions, and that a strong enough wind in certain directions is sufficient to reverse the approaches and take-offs, resulting in arrivals coming over Sunnyvale.  And while he didn’t have stats, he did perceive a recent (past two months) increase in weather-related shifts, mostly due to wind.

San Carlos Airport/San Mateo County

I lump these two together because while they had separate representatives, they coordinated their comments, and it was difficult to differentiate them during the conversation.  There were no elected representatives from San Mateo County present.  That may be my fault. In speaking before the BOS, I conveyed our reaction to what had happened, and that may have discouraged the participation of elected officials.  My bad.  Anyway, I’d describe these parties apologetic over what had transpired without being remorseful or flexible.

I think there is a clear difference in perception over the Surf Air issue. From Sunnyvale’s point of view, the San Carlos Airport changed the Surf Air route such that the planes spend more time over Sunnyvale and no time over San Mateo County (except over water). And that decision was made without including Sunnyvale in the process, and with virtually no attempt to communicate with Sunnyvale.  From the San Carlos Airport side, they see the new route as going over fewer residents than the old route, therefore “an improvement”.  The old route include overflights over Mountain View, Palo Alto, Redwood City, and others, while the new one stays over Sunnyvale longer before going over the bay.

From the point of view of “disrupt as few residents as possible”, the San Carlos perspective is completely logical, if you view people as interchangeable.  From the point of view of Sunnyvale, the new route frees San Carlos of any environmental issues, completely at Sunnyvale’s expense, and without any Sunnyvale involvement in the decision.  So the intractability of the two sides is logical, if unfortunate.  It’s like saying “ten people have to die to save one hundred”, which may make sense as the lesser evil, but not if all ten belong to the same family.

I’ll add one final observation. I frankly found some of the San Carlos arguments disingenuous, and more media sound bites than facts supporting a conclusion.  For instance, one of the airport reps made the point that both the old route and the new route pass over Sunnyvale, and the change results in no additional Sunnyvale overflights.  I had to pointedly explain that the new route has planes staying over Sunnyvale longer and affects more Sunnyvale residents than the old one. So claiming that “the number of flights is the same so there’s no additional effect” is simply not true.  Mayor Hendricks made similar comments regarding the changes in flight altitudes caused by the new route.  I was disappointed that the San Carlos rep even tried to make such a point.  Given the level of distrust that San Carlos has created, it was a step backwards for them.


These three were represented by staffers.  As such, they took notes on what transpired without contributing much.  That’s not too surprising.

General Issues

Beyond the specifics, the discussion seemed to boil down to the question of concentrating routes vs. “sharing the pain”. The San Carlos, Palo Alto, and Menlo Park advocacy has favored concentrating routes. Unfortunately, just like a magnifying glass, when routes get concentrated, whoever is under them gets burned. So I think it’s fair to say that Sunnyvale’s leadership favors a “share the pain” approach.

There’s also a significant amount of buck-passing taking place regarding the reporting of airplane noise.  I learned that every airport has its own noise complaint contact.  And apparently every airport contracts this out to a third party, usually the same third party.  And none of it is coordinated between the different airports.  And it appears that the standard response is to try to get away from the issue whenever it appears that a complaint may not involve the specific airport being contacted.  For Sunnyvale, where people are seeing planes but not knowing who’s responsible, that’s a pretty serious issue.  And Sunnyvale’s reps made that point to the parties in a way that could not be misunderstood.

What Happens Next

That’s the million-dollar question, of course. I can’t say that I left the meeting satisfied. Mostly, the meeting was an opportunity to voice our concerns to people who really needed to hear them, and that happened. But we had deliverables that we want, and we don’t have them yet.

We wanted information about why certain things have changed over Sunnyvale.  I think we have the best answers available on that point.  There’s still a little bit of “this is what happens”, “well, that’s not what we’re seeing”, and we need to work through that.

I’m pretty confident that none of the parties involved in this will omit Sunnyvale from future discussions that involve us…  I think that between Sunnyvale’s elected officials, Supervisor Cortese, and Congressman Honda, that message was made clear.

We need an answer from the FAA, Congressman Honda, the airports, or whoever about where our residents need to contact to complain about overflight issues.  I think the FAA and Congressman Honda’s office got that message and are taking it seriously.  I have less confidence that some of the other involved parties are taking that issue as seriously.

Going forward, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s select committee continues to operate, and they’re getting close to making a recommendation to Congressmembers Eshoo and Farr, as well as the FAA, about changes to mitigate the impacts of NextGen.  Based on Congresswoman Eshoo’s own letter, Supervisor Simitian’s joint letter with Supervisor Cortese, and reading between the FAA’s lines a bit, I have a lot of confidence that any recommendation amounting to “just move it over Sunnyvale” will not be well-received by either Eshoo or the FAA.  Both Eshoo and Simitian are now on record as opposing solutions that just move the problem from one jurisdiction to another. We obviously need to keep an eye on these proceedings anyway, because the Palo Alto voices are loud.

So I think the focus has to be on the Surf Air problem, and making sure we’re aware of the impacts of that change (and reporting them). We need to get residents more information on these overflights, so they can be distinguished from normal Moffett operations.  In the meantime, if you believe you’re hearing unwanted noise from a Surf Air flight, the San Carlos Airport noise complaint line is (844) 266-6266, or you can file a complaint online here.

I think we also still don’t know enough about the SJC changes, and I’m hoping we can get more information

That’s the bulk of what’s been going on.

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