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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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But after the September 11 terrorist attacks that year, the discussions came to a halt, apparently because of the military's desire to fully preserve its airspace off the Pacific Coast. "We were right on the verge of actually making the change," Crosse recalled. "But then 9/11 happened, and the military airspace was deemed essential."

Now, fourteen years later, National Park Service officials and other advocates for noise reduction say it's time to revisit the possible compromise. There is also a precedent for collaboration. In 2010, the FAA partnered with the Defense Department to allow limited commercial air travel in military zones on the East Coast during busy holiday seasons. And Gregor told me in an email that the FAA has, in fact, used the West Coast military "warning areas" for commercial flights when the airspace is available, but he did not provide specifics.

"There appears to be some flexibility," said Rocchio, who showed me flight maps and drawings with airspace zoning restrictions. "We're just looking to protect this little bit over Point Reyes." In December 2013, at the start of the NorCal Metroplex process, NPS officials wrote to the FAA urging that it again consider possible offshore routes by Marin County.

Four months later, just before the FAA released its full environmental assessment, Elizabeth Ray, vice president of mission support services in the FAA's Air Traffic Organization division, responded to the NPS, making clear that directing flights over the ocean was not something that the FAA would consider: "Rerouting flights along the Marin coastline to routes further offshore is not part of the purpose of this project."

In its final environmental report on the NorCal Metroplex, the FAA once again dismissed the NPS's offshore rerouting request with a vague comment that stated in its entirety: "To the extent [the NPS] has recommended moving all flights west and over the ocean, this is not reasonable or feasible because of various factors including airspace complexity and the presence of restricted airspace over the ocean that limits where aircraft may operate."

This response, critics said, was in many ways emblematic of the FAA's pattern of refusing to work on compromises with groups affected by noise. For example, the FAA's NorCal Metroplex assessment also failed to consider any potential noise impacts at Yosemite, one of the most popular national parks in the country. In a January 2014 letter to the FAA, Lehnertz, the NPS Pacific West regional director, specifically requested that the FAA include Yosemite in its environmental assessment, noting that a significant amount of east-west air traffic in the NorCal Metroplex flies over the park and that the NPS has extensive documentation about the frequent, negative impacts on wildlife and visitors.

Ray, the FAA vice president, eventually responded with a letter denying her request, stating that Yosemite was outside the geographic bounds of its review and further arguing that because flights over the park were more than 18,000 feet above ground, the FAA "policy has established that there is no reason to analyze aircraft noise." In other words, the FAA not only failed to consider opportunities to help protect the natural landscape of Yosemite — by potentially decreasing flight routes over particularly sensitive areas — but aviation officials refused to even study how the crown jewel of the US national park system might be affected by noise.

Similarly, the NPS has long tried to minimize noise impacts from air tours — sightseeing helicopters and small jets that are popular attractions at some parks — but the FAA has opposed park officials' proposals. In 2000, Congress passed the National Parks Air Tour Management Act, requiring the FAA to work with the NPS to pass formal "management plans" for the national parks in which air tours operate. The NPS hoped the two agencies could write and adopt specific plans that would limit noise pollution — for example, capping the number of flights allowed or limiting when and where air tour operators could fly.

But fifteen years later, the two agencies have not passed a single air tour management plan, because the FAA and the NPS can't agree on how to measure noise impacts, Rocchio said. (FAA representatives did not respond to my requests for comment about air tours).

"The Federal Aviation Administration has a very different mandate than [the NPS]," added Ward, the NPS overflights program manager. "We look at why parks were established and what were the resources being preserved. In that difference in our mandates, it's made it really difficult for us to find common ground."

For Rocchio, the longstanding dispute over air tours speaks to her broader frustrations with the FAA's priorities. The FAA "seems to be more of an advocate ... for air tours, and I'm not sure they need to be advocating for the air tour industry," she said. "Shouldn't they be partnering with another federal agency to protect resources?"

Critics of the new superhighways in the sky hope that the technology that created the noise problems will ultimately help restore some of the quiet in Northern California. Because the GPS system allows aviation officials to establish very precise flight plans, the FAA, they say, should use the satellite-based navigation tools to design routes that do a better job of distributing the burdens and limiting excessive noise pollution in sensitive areas.

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