Airplane Noise Disrupts Potrero Hill Peace

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The diagram includes all air traffic in 2017 and 2018 through August. Image courtesy of San Francisco International Airport.

The first two decades of living in her home near the top of Arkansas Street were mostly peaceful for one Potrero Hill resident, but over the past year the quiet has been regularly shattered.  According to the Hill dweller, who requested anonymity as she’s concerned about her property values, airplane traffic is more frequent and lower than she can ever recall. There are days when she hears more than 100 planes pass over, sometimes every three or four minutes, starting as early as 6:30 a.m., continuing as late as 1 a.m.

Equally frazzling is that she has a psychotherapy office in her household. “It makes it impossible to live and work in your home,” she said. “It blots out conversation. For 40 to 55 seconds there is an escalating sound and you don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

After filing complaints with San Francisco (SFO) and Oakland International airports, she began keeping logs, including noting decibel levels obtained from an app she downloaded on her phone. She said many of the planes produce 50 to 60 decibels, about conversation level, but at times they reach 80 decibels, which acoustic experts relate to the noise from a vacuum cleaner or garbage disposal. Flight tracking maps, which contain decibel readings, can be found on the Internet; a cross check of her logs confirm that her app may not be far off the mark.

While most flights from SFO only go as far as Visitation Valley before turning south, air traffic from Oakland travels directly over Potrero Hill, according to SFO spokesman Doug Yakel. The Arkansas Street resident, who can view the patterns from her window, concurs that while some of the traffic is from SFO, Oakland is the primary source. Complaining to any airport has its limitations, however. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has sole jurisdiction over the nation’s airspace.

Complaints about airplane noise are nothing new, but they’ve increased dramatically in the Bay Area since the FAA switched to a satellite-enabled navigation system known as “NextGen” in 2015. Traditionally, navigation aids were ground-based; satellites offer more precise tracking, which can allow for routes that reduce flying time, fuel use and emissions. Precision tracking also enables planes to fly lower.  According to the FAA’s website, “Although NextGen procedures generally provide noise relief for a majority of people and communities, they sometimes result in flight pattern changes that can concentrate noise for some community residents who live directly under those flight paths.”

After NextGen’s implementation, public outcries occurred throughout the Bay Area. In the South Bay, U.S. House of Representatives Anna Eshoo (D), Jackie Speier (D) and Sam Farr (D) convened a 12-member committee which held 10 public hearings before drawing up a list of 104 recommendations for the FAA to consider to reduce the impact of NextGen changes. In the East Bay, U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D) supported a similar effort through the Oakland Community Noise Management Forum, which serves as an advisory body to the airport.

In San Francisco, a 2016 petition on Change.org garnered 202 signatures calling on then Mayor Ed Lee to look into the matter. The appeal, which had signees from Buena Vista Park, Visitation Valley and Portola, among other neighborhoods, stated, “the sky is humming with jet noise, spaced within as little as 60 seconds of each other, as early as 6 a.m. through midnight…some of them are flying at such a low altitude residents are able to identify the airline from below.”

In August, the FAA dismissed most of the recommendations made by the Oakland Forum, and, earlier this year, rejected three-quarters of those that emerged from the South Bay hearings, leaving the remainder for later evaluation. Mostly, the FAA stated that the ideas would’ve hindered safety or slowed traffic.  For instance, the FAA tries to keep jets over the water as much as possible, but if planes were to always take off in the same direction two aircraft couldn’t depart from the same airport simultaneously. Further, many of the recommendations would’ve pushed air traffic to other neighborhoods, in some cases over San Francisco. “The FAA does not make changes that solve one community’s noise problems by moving noise to another community,” stated FAA Pacific Division Communications Manager, Ian Gregor.

Complicating matters, the Bay Area is known as a “metroplex,” a metropolitan area with multiple airports sharing airspace. In addition to SFO and Oakland, there’s traffic overhead from airports in Hayward, Palo Alto, San Jose and Sacramento.

Although the Hill resident is adamant that noise and traffic increased starting last spring, Gregor said other than minor modifications due to weather and safety considerations no major traffic flow changes have been made in the area since the NextGen program was launched.

The FAA said it’s open to hearing from communities.  However, even if changes are adopted they won’t be implemented anytime soon.  It’d take at least a year and a half for recommendations that’re deemed feasible to be adopted.

In the meantime, the Hill resident is concerned about the health effects of noise exposure. Research shows that not only does consistent airplane sound bring mental health affects, brought on by stress or sleep disruption, it can cause physical issues as well. A Harvard study in 2013, Residential exposure to aircraft noise and hospital admissions for cardiovascular diseases, found that hospitalization for cardiovascular disease was 3.5 percent higher for residents over 65 who lived near airports.

“I have to say it’s really accurate,” she said. “The overstimulation is extraordinary.”