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 last week 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 of 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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3 people like this
Posted by Connie
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Nov 22, 2016 at 12:59 pm

We live in the crossings of Mt.View. Recently we noticed a lot of plane noise during the day and night. Is this the result of the vote? Is the new flight path already started? Where can we complain if we dislike it? Thank you.

26 people like this
Posted by Greg Coladonato
a resident of Slater
on Nov 22, 2016 at 2:37 pm

Greg Coladonato is a registered user.


The increased airplane noise you've heard lately is not the result of last week's vote. It's mostly due to the rainy weather we've had in the Bay Area, which results in an altered flight path, that has planes bound for San Jose coming in from the north side of the airport instead of from the south side like they do when the weather is good.

If you ever want to see which plane just flew over your house, you can use the Flight Radar 24 website to do that: Web Link

And if you find that a noisy plane was bound for San Jose Airport, you can report your complaint to SJC here: Web Link


7 people like this
Posted by SteveO
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Nov 22, 2016 at 2:39 pm

Maybe now we can get the Airforce/Government to stop polluting our clear skies with their incessant ConTrails, and God only knows what's in them.

11 people like this
Posted by Otto Maddox
a resident of Monta Loma
on Nov 22, 2016 at 3:43 pm

Contrails are made of water SteveO. You can relax.

As far as the noise, I've noticed. I'd be fine with moving it over someone else's head.

I think Palo Alto gets the worst of it. Most of the SFO planes buzz right over Palo Alto and Menlo Park before hooking left for the airport.

28 people like this
Posted by Interested
a resident of Martens-Carmelita
on Nov 23, 2016 at 2:52 am

Interested is a registered user.

I went to the meetings and sent letters and emails protesting the change that brought such sudden and deafening noise to Mountain View. It seems a large number of us did this - and it brought results. I thought the panel - and the FAA people attending as well - were very aware of the problems and willing to help. It seems they responded to the public in a very positive manner, and I'm grateful.
Maybe this is a good lesson for more people to get involved and actually write letters and emails to your City Council and attend meeting and speak up. Personal involvement, en masse, works a great deal of the time, as evidenced here.

This was not an intent to "dump" noise on someone else. The noise had been over an area much north of here for decades. People bought houses and lived according to the noise they could tolerate. With the sudden switch of routing, there was a massive increase of commercial traffic over Mountain View, resulting in the noise where we specifically bought to avoid.

Many of us pointed out that it was similar to realizing your home was near a railroad track, but you decided to buy there anyway - and also the opposite: you chose to perhaps pay more and buy in a quieter area away from the tracks. Then suddenly, the railroad decides to switch the tracks to the quieter neighborhood. You have the rules changed on you, through no fault of your own. That's the scenario we see in the flight track being moved after so many years.

I am glad that, in moving the flight track back near the original route, they are also taking steps to quiet the noise. Thus those who bought, knowing the consequences of the flight track, will get some relief as well.

Joe Simitian handled this very well. I'm grateful for the future reduction of noise here in Mountain View - and a return to our quieter skies that we had for decades - before this last awful revision.

3 people like this
Posted by Mt. View Neighbor
a resident of North Whisman
on Nov 23, 2016 at 9:27 am

Ok, deafening noise, known to have unhealthy affects. All this seems like clouds to confuse the fact that there is plenty of useable airspace that would not negatively impact homeowners so greatly, namely, the giant spaces over water. Cloud things as much as you want. It doesn't change the fact that we don't want the noise, the planes or the con trails.

3 people like this
Posted by Depo
a resident of another community
on Nov 24, 2016 at 7:02 am

Quit your crying people! Today's aircraft are quieter than ever! The Air Force should fly an F 104 Starfighter over your heads all day long and then you will appreciate the QUIET you have now! I miss the days of a Boeing 707 on climb out when a jet sounded like a jet!

12 people like this
Posted by David
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Nov 25, 2016 at 1:13 pm

Homeowners of Mountain View should breathe a small sigh of relief. Not just because it looks like we may get this SFO arrival path back to its historic route, but because there was a strong group of people trying to move it even further east over our city. If you haven't already, take a look at There you will find a scary proposal to move this same flight path even further over Mountain View and Los Altos. This is a very political issue. Of course it is. Who wants all those planes flying over their home? That is why the only fair thing to do is leave the flight path the way it has been for 30 years prior to the FAA move in 2015. Where it was when millions of us bought and built our homes in this area. So obvious, and yet this Select Committee couldn't even reach this recommendation unanimously. Very political. Thank the efforts of groups like, who have been pushing for the return of the flight path to its historic location. And watch out for the next time Palo Alto tries to move this path over the politically weak.

14 people like this
Posted by Impacted
a resident of another community
on Nov 27, 2016 at 11:54 am

Joe Simitian did not do a good job on this. He voted to have the flight path, SERFR, stay instead of returning it back to the historical path. This flight path was shifted over people in Santa Clara county without notice or reason.

If he really was representing the people of Santa Clara county, he would have voted to have the flight path returned to BIG SUR, the only fair thing to do. Please remember this when he is up for vote again. In my eyes, he is not a fair politician.

8 people like this
Posted by Mad at FAA
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Nov 28, 2016 at 7:30 am

I agree with @Impacted. Mr Simitian represented Palo Alto alone, not Santa Clara County as he was elected to represent. As a former Palo Alto councilman, Palo Alto mayor, Palo Alto school board member, he clearly showed his political side and fought the common sense wisdom of returning this flight path to its historic location. We can't vote out the FAA officials responsible for this remarkable mess, but we can vote out Joe Simitian for prolonging it.

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