In 1971, San Francisco International Airport was designated a “noise problem airport” by San Mateo County. But over the years, the airport has worked hard to reverse that reputation.
Beginning in the 1980s, SFO and the Federal Aviation Administration began spending some $158 million to thicken doors and install double-pane windows at homes where airplane noise reaches an average daily level of 65 decibels or more. SFO Community Affairs Director Michael McCarron said more than 90 percent of eligible homes received insulation, thus waiving their right to complain about noise. And the insulation in new homes meets noise abatement requirements.
Airport officials also began changing flight paths and benefited from a 2000 federal law requiring airplanes shift to quieter engines. Decibel levels, tracked by 33 noise monitors, peaked in 1983 and continued to decline through 2005, at which point they flattened out, airport officials say.
Public-noise complaints to SFO dropped tenfold after 2000, McCarron said, although he acknowledged that he still receives 300 to 400 complaints a month.
But noise may have given way to vibration.
“I think when they engineered these new engines it actually made more of a vibration,” said Gary Aronson, a Millbrae resident who has spent most of his 60 years living right next to the airport on the other side of U.S. Highway 101.
Vibrations from passing jets rattle his windows and his insides, Aronson said, but are “not overwhelming, not nearly as bad as the noise was.”
Neither SFO nor the FAA measure vibrations. To do so would require airport officials to install pricey accelerometers in homes and “watch families in their living rooms” to determine whether vibrations were coming from planes or people walking around the house, said SFO’s noise abatement director, Burt Ganoung.
The recent civil grand jury report on airport noise says the airport should publish data about single noise events — such as one airplane screaming overhead. Currently, the airport only reports the average daily noise level over a three-month period.
To see a map tracking SFO noise complaints for the month of May by location, click on the photo to the right.
But Ganoung said single events are even less representative than 24-hour averages of what people experience who live near the airport. “It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have,” he said.
The airport also publishes a monthly map of public noise complaints and a rating of airlines’ noise impacts.
A recent San Mateo County civil grand jury report argues that airplane noise around San Francisco International Airport threatens the quality of life for nearby communities yet is being inadequately monitored and regulated.
The report, titled “County Officials Need to Make Noise about Aircraft Noise,” said the group tasked with protecting San Mateo County residents from airplane noise has become “inactive.” Furthermore, it argued, the airport is not publishing enough data about noise levels, and should be monitoring intense vibrations caused by passing planes.
But airport officials say their Airport Roundtable is an exemplary model of citizen-airport cooperation and that noise levels are monitored and reported in strict accordance with state and federal laws.
The number of flights going in and out of the waterfront airport has increased in recent years, as has the number of residents living under flight paths in Brisbane, Colma, South San Francisco, San Bruno and Daly City.
Yet the roundtable’s meetings have been reduced from a monthly to a quarterly basis, attendance has declined and the public has lost faith in the group, the report alleged.
“There’s a lot of things the roundtable can do, but they aren’t doing anything, basically,” civil grand jury foreman Ray Basso said. “People have just given up.”
The civil grand jury recommended that the roundtable — which brings together airline, city, county and SFO representatives — include state and aeronautics officials, be chaired by an elected official and form a subcommittee exclusively for North County cities, which lie closer to the airport.
But Daly City’s most recent roundtable member, City Councilman David Canepa, said a north county subcommittee would make the roundtable “territorial and parochial,” and leave out other cities also affected by noise.
Canepa called the roundtable “effective,” and said he dropped out of the group in 2009 due to “revenue issues” related to the $700 membership cost. “I’d love to see Daly City back on the board,” he said.
The report also critiqued the county for not participating in the roundtable. Newly elected Supervisor Dave Pine said the recent lapse in county participation was only due to a changeover in his supervisor seat. Pine said he plans to attend regularly and added that at the single roundtable event he’s been to so far, the general feeling was that public complaints and the roundtable’s workload had lessened over the years.
SFO noise complaints in May:
Daly City: 315
Foster City: 5
Half Moon Bay: 1
Menlo Park: 2
Palo Alto: 245
San Bruno: 5
San Francisco: 14
South San Francisco: 8
Source: Airport Monitoring System