In the past few years, San Jose International Airport (SJC) has expanded considerably, thereby increasing the amount of air traffic flying over Silicon Valley residences, and in some cases reducing the quality of life for many residents. The airport, owned by the City of San Jose, has become physically larger with new gates added and has also become busier with more passengers and destinations.
SJC’s total take-offs and landings increased by 21.5 percent during the first half of 2019 and increased by 11.3 percent between 2017 and 2018. Between 2013 and 2018, the number of operations increased 40.8 percent, from 138,854 takeoffs and landings to 195,627 takeoffs and landings. The growth trajectory is expected to continue.
An outcry over increased noise from air traffic has erupted in Santa Clara’s northern neighborhoods. Except on cloudy or rainy days, most of the planes departing SJC fly northward directly above northern Santa Clara. Although the airport has been operating since 1948, residents have said that noise impacts from aircraft have reached an unbearable level over the past year.
“I live right under the flight path and have lived here for over 20 years, so I’m already used to noise, but it has gotten worse and planes seem to be flying lower,” said Michelle Kha, who lives on Esperanca Avenue. “The noise can be unbearable and has gotten worse since they’ve expanded the airport. I’ve filed complaints, but I don’t know how much they pay attention to it. Sometimes they fly so low, it seems like the planes might almost touch my roof.”
Residents’ noise complaints span the day and night, most days of the week. SJC operates on a curfew of 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. in which only certain types of airplanes deemed quiet enough can operate. If the perceived noise an airplane makes exceeds 89 decibels during these hours, the airline involved is fined $2,500, an amount which residents say is too low to make a difference to major airlines. According to Scott Wintner, Deputy Director of Communications for SJC, the curfew violation fines go to general airport revenue and there are no restrictions on how the money is spent. Last fiscal year, SJC collected $120,000 in fines.
Another northern Santa Clara resident who requested anonymity, has lived in his home for seven years, but said in the last few months that the noise levels have become “insane” and “you can’t lead a normal life.” He blames the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for not actively participating in community discussions around the issue and called the increased airplane noise “a systemic problem created by decisions made by the FAA.” He and others have criticized the FAA’s adoption of the Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, which is a system of air travel modernization that also narrowly restricts flight paths.
Gaurav Menghani, a resident who’s actively participated in discussions regarding airplane noise on the online platform NextDoor and created an informational slideshow for the community on the topic, has measured airplane noise in his neighborhood at over 90 decibels. Studies have shown that noise levels in residential areas exceeding 60 decibels during the day and 45 at night result in increased rates of hypertension, heart disease and stroke. Memory loss, hearing loss, and learning problems in children are also among the deleterious effects.
Furthermore, Menghani and other neighbors have said that they and their families can no longer enjoy being in their homes due to the persistent noise, and spending time outdoors has become nearly impossible. Hundreds of students at Montague Elementary School are negatively impacted by the noise and neighborhood parks have become unusable, he said.
“The noise has made my life hell,” Menghani said. “I can’t work from home and I try to stay at the office as much as possible.”
Menghani said he may move into a smaller home in another part of the region to escape the airplane noise and is considering renting out his house in Santa Clara. He also claims that the noise issues are impacting property values in his neighborhood, with one house, in particular, having its price reduced by $160,000 before being sold.
“SJC airport has been adding gates without absolutely any consideration for our community and jamming lots of takeoffs into short windows, laying flight paths as low as under 1,000 feet directly over residential areas,” offered Taras Roshko, another resident. “This generates noise levels over 90 decibels at my backyard, which is identical to having power tools on. Dozens of flights take off right after the curfew at 6:30 a.m. and make the house shake.”
Some residents have said that potentially waiting years for airplane technology to improve in order to get a respite from the noise is unacceptable and want more immediate changes made, such as modifications to flight paths and setting limits on how many planes can fly over any given neighborhood in a day.
Representatives from SJC’s Noise Office have said that the airport does not direct where aircraft fly and that FAA is solely responsible for the aircraft once they take-off. Additionally, they’ve said that there are no plans by SJC to amend the curfew program or enact additional restrictions on aircraft operations.
“We collect feedback and pass it on to the FAA but there’s nothing we can do about it,” said Wintner with SJC.
In 1990, the federal Airport Noise and Capacity Act severely limited the ability of airports to regulate noise. Under the law, any newly proposed airport curfews must be extensively analyzed by the FAA before implementation. FAA’s policy is that such restrictions on airport use be a last resort when all other noise mitigation measures are inadequate. The law also states that any airport restriction must not unduly burden interstate commerce — a determination made by the FAA. However, the FAA doesn’t have authority over the number of operations, frequency or schedule of flights at an airport.
“It’s important to note North Santa Clara sits directly off the departure end of Runway 30 at SJC,” explained Ian Gregor, FAA Communications Manager. “The direction of the air traffic flow depends on the wind direction because aircraft must take off and land into the wind. Because of prevailing wind direction, we depart to the north, off Runway 30, the vast majority of the time.”
Beginning in February, a Santa Clara/Santa Cruz County Airport Community Roundtable was formed composed of stakeholders from several cities (including Santa Clara) impacted by increased airplane noise. Gregor said that the FAA will consider any consensus recommendation it receives from the Roundtable. However, he added that, “The Northern California airspace is extremely complex, with aircraft arriving at and departing from four major airports and numerous other satellite airports. Moving one air route either vertically or laterally in complex airspace can affect multiple nearby air routes.”
Local, State Officials Respond to Noise Complaints
On Oct. 2, a community meeting on airplane noise was held at the Northside Branch Library in Santa Clara. With support of City staff, the meeting was organized by District 1 Council Member Kathy Watanabe who has been cognizant of the impacts airplane noise is having on residents in her district. U. S. Representative Ro Khanna, Mayor Lisa Gillmor and Council Member Raj Chahal were also present, among others.
“When it comes to dealing with the FAA, we don’t have any leeway with them, we don’t have any jurisdictional control over this, so we really need our congressional representatives engaged,” Watanabe said.
Khanna has been involved with the issue and was instrumental in forming the Roundtable as well as the Ad-Hoc Committee on Southflow Arrivals. He also has a congressional office nearby and said he and staff experience the airplane noise first-hand.
“I understand the anger and frustration you all you have,” Khanna said. “This is an issue happening across the country.”
Khanna acknowledged that the NextGen system doesn’t take noise into consideration and said he wrote a letter to the FAA asking them to take noise impacts into account. The representative also has a meeting with the FAA scheduled on Oct. 16 where he will talk about the noise issues impacting the district.
“I will be advocating as hard as I can with the FAA,” said Khanna. “The noise impacts have to be considered as well as the business impacts. I know this issue matters and I will try my best to work with leaders to solve it.”
Gillmor said that although the “FAA isn’t open to discussion whatsoever” that other options are going to be explored such as investigating whether any of Santa Clara’s laws have been broken by the airport.
An SJC representative gave a presentation at the meeting and responded to comments from community members. He said that there were only 40 curfew violations in 2018, but some present at the meeting said that the low number doesn’t capture the full impact due to safety exceptions granted to airlines for breaking curfew, which are allegedly applied routinely.
Several residents vented concerns about how detrimental the noise is on the quality of life and one commented that noise mitigation treatments installed in his home in the 1990s are “useless.” The acoustical treatments were part of an Acoustical Treatment Program implemented by the airport between 1995 and 2009 to treat the interiors of 2,675 homes and four schools with soundproofing installations. According to Watanabe, concerns about airport noise date back to at least 1981 when the City of Santa Clara hired an expert to study the issue.
Residents present at the meeting also stated that they’re considering moving out of the area due to the noise but criticized some airport representatives who they claim have in the past suggested that they either relocate or insulate their homes to address the problem.
“I think the airport should foot the bill for us,” one resident said.