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Superhighways in the Sky

The FAA is burdening Bay Area communities and wildlife habitats with aerial freeways for jet planes. And even the National Park Service can't stop the noise.



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"We have a long history of [the FAA] not agreeing with us," Rocchio said. "We feel we're obligated to get this noise off of the wilderness areas. And so we're just trying to do our job, and they're just ignoring us."

In dismissing the NPS's concerns throughout the NorCal process and declining to consider solutions that could reduce jet noise at parks, the FAA has made clear that victims of noise pollution across the country are largely helpless. For humans and wildlife, that means the increasing harms of air traffic could persist with no end in sight.

For more than fifty years, the FAA has controlled US traffic in the sky — managing aircraft takeoffs and landings and the flow of planes. The FAA's air traffic controllers have used evolving technologies over the years to direct flights within one of the most complex aviation networks in the world, known as the National Airspace System. It's this system's urban metroplexes — the congested airspaces over major cities — where the FAA's new GPS technology is intended to dramatically improve operations.

Traditionally, air traffic controllers have communicated with pilots via radio and used radar to monitor aircrafts and ensure that traffic in the sky is safe and orderly. Congress first approved the concept of NextGen, the GPS technology, in 2003, paving the way for the FAA to start replacing ground-based navigation systems with a satellite-based one. Simply put, it's a shift to a digital system that allows the FAA to guide and track flights on precise and direct routes.

"The satellite technology creates predictable, repeatable flight paths that are very specific," FAA spokesperson Ian Gregor said in a brief interview. There are many advantages, he said, such as new descent procedures that allow aircrafts to glide down to the runway — like sliding down a banister — instead of the conventional process that required pilots to level off at each stage and thus burn more fuel. A more efficient descent can save time and money and reduce a jet's carbon footprint, he said.

Under the older, less precise air traffic system that had been in effect for decades, plane routes were spread out over a relatively large region, which meant that jet noise, in turn, tended to be somewhat dispersed among communities and unpopulated areas. By contrast, NextGen essentially directs jets, one by one, onto specific pathways, concentrating the plane noise over communities that are underneath these aerial freeways.

The FAA also says that NextGen results in planes spending less time sitting on the ground and holding in the air and allows for real-time sharing of data regarding weather, aircraft locations, and other relevant airspace conditions.

As part of its large-scale rollout of NextGen, the FAA, in 2009, began the process of launching "airspace optimization" initiatives in metro areas, identifying metroplexes that could benefit from this transition. There are now fourteen metro projects in the works or completed, including one now underway in Southern California. For each regional project, the FAA is required under the National Environmental Policy Act to assess and disclose to the public potential environmental impacts of the new systems and procedures.

Because the FAA was apparently behind schedule in implementing NextGen, Congress, as part of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act, directed the agency in 2012 to speed up the rollout of the technology and complete the metroplex project on expedited timelines. That effectively meant more limited environmental scrutiny. A project that could result in "significant noise or other environmental impacts" would require the feds to prepare a so-called Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a process that typically takes more than three years to complete and comes with extensive analyses of alternative options.

Instead, FAA has claimed that the metroplex projects do not produce major impacts. This has allowed the agency to complete quicker "environmental assessments" that are less rigorous than an EIS. The expedited NorCal Metroplex timeline meant the FAA would be able to complete design and implementation within three years. In August 2014, the FAA released its official "finding of no significant impact" for the project — the final step of the review process — and has since been implementing the new routes and procedures in phases. As of this month, most flights in the Bay Area have been using the new superhighways in the sky.

Opponents say that one of the biggest flaws of the FAA's limited environmental assessment is that the evaluations of jet sounds fail to recognize significant increases in noise pollution over specific areas. Instead, the FAA has marketed NextGen as a tool to reduce noise — since more precise and efficient paths can limit the areas exposed to jets. But the areas located under the FAA's new aerial highways are experiencing huge impacts.

"Instead of having the whole Bay Area share the noise, you're putting it under a few straight lines ... and slamming whoever is under the beam," said Jennifer Landesmann, a Palo Alto resident. Parts of Palo Alto fall under three new flight routes to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in the NorCal optimization project. Landesmann is part of a local advocacy group called Sky Posse Palo Alto that has argued that the FAA's noise evaluations are insufficient.

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