Ever since Lindbergh Field was dedicated in 1928, there have been outcries over noisy aircraft over San Diego neighborhoods. But a new rapprochement between recently tone deaf aviation officials and irritated residents in the flight paths may now be in the offing. After two years of Federal Aviation Administration missteps in implementing new flight patterns, the agency and the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority have hired consultants to work with local residents to determine changes to alleviate some of the latest noise problems.
As the residents and the consultants work together, the FAA has a word of warning. No change shall be accepted that causes noise to neighborhoods that haven’t yet been hearing it. The FAA might have thought to set the example.
“We bought and moved into our La Mesa home in June 2015,” says Marie Knox, “and there weren’t any commercial airliners that we could hear or see over or near the house. We could see them out our front window, a good distance south, going in to land, but could barely hear them. Then, in November of last year, the week of Thanksgiving, everything changed overnight.
“Suddenly, the planes were flying low over the house and over the yard, and not just a little bit. It was an assault. At first, my husband, Scott, thought it must have been due to the heavy travel week. He worked days and did not hear what I did. But on Wednesday morning he was home and went out to get the paper at the bottom of the stairs leading to our front door and, as he was coming back up, a [Boeing] 737 blew over the house. He couldn’t believe how abrupt and low and loud it was.
“He came into the house and, without saying anything to me, he called the La Mesa police and said we just had an incident, that there was something wrong. He told them the plane was so low he thought it was going to hit the house. ‘It is unsafe,’ he told them, and wanted to know what was going on.”
The police told Knox they had heard a few other such reports but that the Federal Aviation Administration was the place to get answers. So Knox called the FAA in Miramar and spoke to someone in its Flight Standards Office who stated right off that she didn’t own the airspace above her home. “He also told me the plane didn’t do anything wrong,” she says, “and that anything above 1000 feet was legal. The trouble is that we live on a 500-foot ridge.”
Knox next spoke to Sjohnna Knack from the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. What Knox was hearing, Knack replied, was due to a change in flight paths resulting from a new satellite navigation system the FAA was installing. “We all want it to go back to the way it was before,” said Knack, “but that’s not going to happen.”
“I then realized that I needed to educate myself,” says Knox. “So I started researching, and the first thing I discovered was that all over the U.S. people are suffering from the noise and starting to fight back. Then I saw that it had started in San Diego, too, two years earlier.”
Knox figured that not all of her neighbors would react as strongly against the noise as she did. When she brought the issue up on Nextdoor.com, a number of them said they paid it hardly any attention and others were fully aware of it but were not bothered. Quite a few were just as angry about it as she was. But one man, says Knox, told her to keep her mouth shut about it. She thought he might have been afraid public exposure would drag down property values in the area.
It was in late spring, 2015, that San Diego County began to learn the implications of satellite navigation as the future of its airspace. The region’s air traffic is now governed by the Southern California Metroplex, one of a multitude of similar systems that the FAA is establishing across the U.S. to make air travel more efficient. Global positioning technology has taken the place of ground and radar based ping-ponging of planes across the country.
“The FAA must have published a little something in the Union-Tribune that gave their official notice, but the announcement largely went undiscovered,” says Casey Schnoor, a leading Point Loma aircraft noise activist. “They then gave their public presentation in Barrio Logan about a plan that will have impacts immediately around the circumference of Lindbergh Field, communities such as Loma Portal, Ocean Beach, Mission Beach, Mission Hills, and Hillcrest.”
In August that summer, Schnoor and other Point Loma residents became aware that one of the proposals in the plan was to change a departure route that would affect the peninsula. The FAA was planning to remove a waypoint called LOWMA on Point Loma’s southern tip. Waypoints are virtual locations in the air that commercial jet aircraft are required to fly around as part of their formal departure routes.
“The idea of removing that waypoint got our attention,” Schnoor tells me, “because now aircraft heading east were going to be free, at their own discretion, to turn back over Point Loma, the Cabrillo National Monument, Fort Rosecrans, the Wooded Area and Sunset Cliffs.
At that time, Schnoor says he began a six-month immersion into everything airport noise. “Each community has a different set of issues,” he tells me.
“My Point Loma neighbors started talking, too, and eventually, I put a petition on Change.org that said the FAA plan wasn’t right and that it had to be changed. My gut told me we’d get 300 to 500 signatures; we got 3500 and counting. The petition prompted the FAA to push the Airport Authority to hold a public meeting at Liberty Station on a hot summer night, close to 90 degrees in temperature. Estimates were that 800 to 1000 people turned up in the meeting hall that night on very short notice.”
“That was the most disastrous public relations meeting I’ve ever attended,” says Melissa Hernholm Danzo, who, together with Schnoor and some of their Point Loma neighbors, had already been meeting informally to determine how best to deal with whatever the San Diego Metroplex had in store.
The neighbors had noticed a definite spike in airliner noise resulting from early turns pilots were making from the Pacific Ocean back over land. “The noise made being outside in the backyard, during playtime with the kids, very unpleasant,” Danzo tells me. “We had purchased our home only a year earlier. Very little noise was noticeable then.”
In an article about residents’ complaints, the San Diego Union Tribune accused Danzo of complaining only as a bandwagon reaction to the discovery of Metroplex plan. That, and denials by the FAA, got under her skin.
“Nothing fries me more than the ‘nothing’s changed’ comments.”
Danzo sells real estate, and “you just know the sounds in the neighborhoods you work,” she says. “I’m very aware of the parrots in Point Loma, for instance, and when I’m in Mission Hills in the morning, I hear the drill sergeant from down at MCRD.”
Two years ago, Danzo was appointed to represent Point Loma on the Airport Authority’s Airport Noise Advisory Committee (ANAC). Meanwhile, she’s heard a lot of discussion about expanding the San Diego International Airport. Already, British Airways has been offering flights to and from London, Lufthansa to and from Frankfurt and Japan Airlines to and from Tokyo.
Danzo believes that, in the big picture, San Diego’s airport noise is a capacity and volume issue. “Why are you adding more gates if this is a single runway airport?” she asks. “And we’ve become almost a hub for Southwest Airlines.”
Casey Schnoor is retired from a long career in real estate investment. An outdoor plaza in Liberty Station is where he has suggested we meet. Only a minute or two into our conversation, I understand why, as some of the loudest noise I’ve heard descends on us from above. Schnoor knows to begin speaking up, practically shouting, as the planes approach. He is well prepared for the bright sunshine, wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses.
“Two FAA officials led the presentation that night in Liberty Station,” Schnoor continues. “They said they were not going to answer questions, and the proceedings would not be on the record. We were in the midst of the environmental assessment comment period. Fortunately, television station KSUI was there, videotaped the entire meeting and transcribed it for the record. Many people voiced concerns and complaints that night. The officials just sat stone-faced.”
Come November 2016, despite the many objections residents had put forward by that time, the Environmental Assessment was approved with a “No Significant Impact.” The FAA took it to mean they could then start implementing their NextGen changes, says Schnoor.
“But the meeting at Liberty Station apparently had gotten the FAA’s attention,” Schnoor continues. “During the evaluation period, instead of only removing the LOWMA waypoint, the FAA decided they would create a new waypoint farther south. That was a big victory for Point Loma. Instead of planes having the ability to make u-turns over the point, they now have a formal waypoint they’re initially directed to fly by.”
“At that time, our informal group started engaging the various political offices and the Airport Authority and its board of directors. That effort was to create some format where we could dialog with the FAA because ANAC, which is the formal body allegedly to allow the community to dialog with the Airport Authority and the FAA, was, in my opinion, dysfunctional. It provided three minutes per person for public comment. But the ANAC representatives would not respond to any of the issues. There was no dialog. The ANAC then was only a vehicle to present the last two months worth of the noise data it collected. After that, the public got to rant. But then the committee closed up shop, waited two more months, printed out the minutes, generated a new set of data and went through the exact same process again.”
But then came a second victory, one that has the potential to benefit all San Diego communities affected by airport noise.
“Of the politicians we approached,” says Schnoor, “it was Mr Cox, because he sits on the Airport Authority board of directors, who embraced our effort. He began the push to create an ANAC Subcommittee composed of community representatives. It started in the fall of 2016.
“The subcommittee sat for a year and generated a list of 67 recommendations, which we boiled down to 21. The group was initially weighted more heavily toward Point Loma, Ocean Beach and Mission Beach than other communities. La Jolla hadn’t yet come into play, but when it did, we moved out one of the Point Loma reps and drew in a La Jolla rep. They needed a voice at the table.”
At its October 2017 meeting, ANAC received the subcommittee recommendations, approved them, then passed them on to the Airport Authority. Two studies of the recommendations are now being conducted by consultants. The first study is limited to the “noise contour” immediately adjacent to the airport, comprised those areas experiencing 65 decibel noise levels, or higher. This study, which occurs every 10 years anyway, is being funded now, a year early, by the FAA. The Airport Authority is funding a parallel study called the Flight Procedure Analysis to examine noise impacts on communities outside the noise contour.
As these studies were set to begin, the ANAC Subcommittee, against vigorous internal resistance, was disbanded, leaving the strong impression that no more community input was to be tolerated. But perhaps only for show, as Schnoor worries, two new committees have been created: a Citizens Advisory Committee and a Technical Advisory Committee. These groups will be advising the FAA and the Airport Authority, as their studies are completed over the next 12 to 16 months. The hope, for Schnoor and other activists, is that the community input will, in fact, be taken seriously.
“In the process of our research during the Metroplex NextGen environmental assessment period,” Schnoor tells me, “our loosely formed Point Loma organization discovered a ‘red dot noise agreement.’” The agreement between the FAA and a number of other significant participants had largely protected Point Loma residents during a previous seven-year period. “It was a ‘handshake’ agreement only,” says Schnoor. “The FAA never put it in writing.”
Nevertheless, the agreement showed that the kind of dialog Schnoor wants between the FAA and residents affected by airport noise was not only possible but effective, for at least one shining moment.
Negotiations to the agreement were described in an October 28, 1998, letter then 49th District Congressman Brian Bilbray wrote to 400 of his constituents who had been complaining of airliner noise in their Point Loma neighborhoods. The agreement took place during a conference call the congressman placed to a number of crucial parties. They included two high ranking FAA regional officials, a representative from the office of San Diego City Councilman Byron Wear, Walter White from the FAA Southern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (TRACON), two community representatives and several others.
During the call, the community members, Judi Curry and Craig Plummer, described the problem of some aircraft making “a tight turn back over Point Loma as they reach the Pacific Ocean and flying over the residential sections rather than crossing the Point further to the south. This brings noise to areas of the Peninsula that have not experienced noise problems to this extent.”
Although not explicitly stated in the letter, Curry and Plummer seem to have proposed a unique solution to the problem. Why not put something on the air traffic controllers’ radar screens that would help them direct planes away from the beleaguered neighborhoods?
According to the letter, TRACON’s Walter White “was most responsive to our concerns…. He indicated that he was very open to the idea of marking the air traffic controllers’ screens so that they could more easily direct traffic out to sea and then back over Point Loma, crossing land south of the residential areas.” The senior FAA officials also “expressed their commitment to working with the community on these issues.”
The negotiations described in the letter led eventually to Air Traffic Control creating a gate, “allegedly by putting red stickies on the radar screens of its controllers,” says Schnoor. “I never saw them, but that’s what Byron Wear told me. The agreement said that, for westerly departures, the aircraft were required to go out the gate established by two of the dots before starting their turns.” For flights east, the planes would then fly south to a spot indicated by a third red dot before turning east over Fort Rosecrans, thus avoiding residential neighborhoods to its north.
The agreement was honored for close to seven years. “It created the single ‘gate’ to fly through,” says Schnoor. An October 2000 California State Audit of the airport described it. “The new procedures [directed] aircraft 1.5 miles west of the shoreline before turning south,” stated the audit. “Aircraft [were] directed so they do not cross Point Loma until as far south as Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. The FAA representatives … also made assurances that Lindbergh Field air traffic controllers direct departing aircraft to a 275- or 290-degree heading when cleared for takeoff.”
But in 2005, the FAA rearranged the dots, exposing a greater number of residents to loud noise. They seem to have done it without notifying the participants in the earlier negotiations, the offices they served, or anyone else. The original gate was approximately 1.6 nautical miles wide. “The 2005 changes increased it, first to a total of 2.3 miles, then subsequent changes expanded it to 3.2 nautical miles, thereby significantly increasing the fan of departure routes both north and south,” says Schnoor.
“The Airport Authority gets a little huffy,” Schnoor continues, “when I press them on their lack of public disclosure, but I have seen the internal email - now in the hands of a number of people - that provides the latitude and longitude of the new noise dots. I don’t deny that they may have informed someone. But they’ve never claimed they did or given us any evidence to show that they disclosed the changes they made. That’s been an underlying bone of contention.”
The change of the original red dots to new positions, now called noise dots, has caused new noise impacts on the lower part of Point Loma, Ocean Beach and Mission Beach. The northern side of the departure gate went from a 290-degree compass heading to a 295 heading (see the PADRZ departure below), a five degree shift to the north, widening the gate and allowing more planes to fly over Mission Beach.
I am sitting with Vicki Bodack and Marilyn Jaseniuk in the patio where they each own condos in South Mission Beach close to where Mission Boulevard ends at the jetty. Jaseniuk is in a jaunty, laughing mood, while Bodack is a bit subdued from the pain of a recent knee replacement.
It is shortly after 4 in the afternoon, and we are watching jet airliners fly overhead, as though the pilots are using the southernmost section of Mission Boulevard, which hooks slightly eastward before it dead ends, as a map. They are departing the airport on the PADRZ route, and the ladies say the noise the planes make is driving them and many other locals nuts. The noise is not as loud here as in Liberty Station.
“It starts at 6:30 in the morning,” says Bodack, “and goes practically non-stop, one plane after another, until 8. And then the same thing happens at night until about 11.”
Bodnack says the noise is like a screeching, while Jaseniuk calls it a loud rumbling and rattling. It’s the frequency of the flights, however, that bothers them the most. Several mornings earlier, Jaseniuk counted. “Between 7 and 7:12, for instance,” she says, “4 flew over, then 2 more by 7:16. And on and on. I just wish the flights would spread out a bit and fly to a higher elevation before they come over.”
I have already visited Gary Wonacott, who lives a few blocks north on Mission Boulevard. He is tall and trim and will be going to play tennis after we’re done. He wears a casual gray warm-up suit, as he explains various aviation maps on his computer. He is retired from a long career in aeronautical engineering.
According to Wonacott, the PADRZ departure route is the one aircraft now use when they fly over South Mission Beach. The official route is a fairly recent one, having been implemented in March 2017. At night, after 10 pm, says Wonacott, the planes are supposed to stick to the 290 degree heading, which takes aircraft along the San Diego River channel and out over the ocean. By Wonacutt’s observations, the PADRZ is currently allowing flights further north, anywhere from 295 to 300 degree headings. After 10 pm, then, means those flights violate the Nighttime Noise Abatement Agreement, while any departure past 11:30 violates the airport curfew.
The Airport Noise Advisory Committee holds a different view, says Wonacott. “I complained recently about a violation because the flight was well north of the 290-degree heading after 10,” he says. “I was told it was not a violation because it took place inside the noise dots, the same expanded noise dots that replaced the old red dots. But the Nighttime Abatement Agreement is defined by the 290 degree heading, not the expanded the noise dots.”
But Sjohnna Knack, who chairs ANAC, claims that after 10 pm, “all aircraft over Mission Beach are already being directed to 290 degrees. She has claimed that all Mission Beach wants to do is move our noise to Ocean Beach. We have never said anything of the kind.”
For some time now, Wonacott and Knack have been going round and round over the Nighttime Noise Agreement’s proper interpretation. I email Knack to get her view, in her own words. She did not reply. Insead, a representative from her office emails to say I should contact the FAA. Calls to several of its offices referred me to Knack’s number.
It would be simple to clear the matter up by reading the agreement, but nobody seems to know where to find it. Wonacott believes that’s because it was never written down. Even its earliest application seems to be unknown.
Wonacott not only hears many violations over his house, and nearby, but finds them in the airport’s Flight Tracker software that anyone can learn to access. Flight Tracker, he says, shows that the nighttime flights are taking place on PADRZ at 295 degrees or further north, not at 290 degrees.
For help in being heard, Wonacott says he tried Deborah Watkins, his Mission Beach representative on the ANAC Subcommittee. She has been a voting member of ANAC itself for at least the last nine years, causing him to maintain she has gone beyond its term limits.
But in a Catch 22, says Wonacott, Watkins refused to help, advising him instead to go to ANAC meetings and speak. “I’d already done that,” he says, “and Knack told everyone that, if they had further questions after the meetings, to address them to their community representative. That would be Watkins for a resident of Mission Beach. I don’t understand why the Mission Beach representative wouldn’t take our concerns to the Subcommittee.”
But a representative from Pacific Beach, which is also affected by the nighttime PADRZ flights, was able to place the issue into the ANAC Subcommittee’s list of recommendations. Recommendation Number 17 reads: “Determine methods to increase current compliance in Nighttime Noise Abatement Procedures [meaning adherence to the 290 degree heading] to improve noise impacts for affected communities and ensure that Air Traffic Control is turning aircraft off this procedure for safety reasons only.”
Last year, at an ANAC meeting, Wonacott tried a different tack. He suggested that aircraft flying into Lindbergh should have at least stage 4 noise muffling technology, stage 1 being the loudest and stage 5 the quietest. He had won a similar battle once previously, during the mid-to-late 1980s, when he, Nancy Palmtag and several other activists convinced the Unified Port of San Diego, then in control of the airport, to require airlines to use at least stage 3 aircraft after 10 pm.
“A person from the chamber of commerce then resisted,” says Wonacutt, “arguing that no restrictions should be allowed to get in the way of increasing tourism in San Diego. Not only did we win that battle anyway, but several years later the stage 3 restriction was put on commercial airliners at all times of day. It’s still in place.”
Wonacott’s latest argument before ANAC, to raise the ante to stage 4 aircraft, was met with silence. At its following meeting, Sjohnna Knack introduced a consultant representing the airlines who, according to Wonacutt, “maintained that going to stage 4 aircraft would not make much of a difference.”
In March 2017, La Jolla became the latest community to rise up in arms over the Southern California Metroplex changes to commercial aircraft flight patterns. From posts on Nextdoor.com, Chris McCann tells me by phone, he could see that local residents did not know how to handle the noise problems and their causes. So he volunteered to represent the community on the ANAC Subcommittee.
McCann is a former U.S. Air Force test pilot. Among other aircraft, he flew transport planes, such as the C-141 Starlifter and the C-17 Globemaster that are similar in size to commercial airliners.
One of the difficulties McCann saw was that people who had noise complaints found the time, location, and plane numbers difficult to report. “The reporting processes,” he tells me by phone, “sometimes caused waits of up to 30 minutes. It would be like trying to file an office suggestion into a drop box that has no slot.”
As a result, the number of complaints to ANAC were low. Not for long, however. McCann bought and modified the “Dash Button” that Amazon.com offers customers to reorder commonly used products. He adapted the gadget in such a way that noise complainers can report the relevant information with the push of a button. “So complaining to ANAC about aircraft noise became easier for both sides,” he says.
McCann then had to counter Sjohnna Knack’s claim to Congressman Scott Peters that the noise La Jolla was hearing came from general aviation and the military flights out of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. On the basis of evidence gathered, “I told her that her claim is a lie.”
La Jollans have suffered a double whammy. First, there is the noise arising from the early turns north by aircraft departing too close to the coast. Pacific Beach and Bird Rock are affected, too, and southern La Jolla is especially hard hit by nearly incessant loud noise, according to McCann.
Second, noise from aircraft flying into San Diego from the north has been especially loud recently. The planes flying south over the ocean must cut in to begin the circle to East County, then back west to Lindbergh Field. That initial easterly turn takes arriving aircraft over Mount Soledad before heading east for their final turn back toward the airport near Mount Miguel in East County.
The problem is not entirely one of location, says McCann. The planes were flying about 1000 lower, at around 6000 feet. Recently, he says, it sounds at his house, which they fly over, as though they may have gone back up to the original elevations of 7000 and 8000 feet. That would show that the FAA can respond positively to residents’ complaints.
For a while, Marie Knox also thought the planes were flying higher over her neighborhood, and less often, than when she contacted Sjohnna Knack in November of last year. But she’s not backing off her estimate that the flights she had seen and heard at that time came through at elevations between 1500 and 3000 feet, despite a spokesperson at the Airport Authority, she says, having denied that airliners fly that low in La Mesa.
On the day that I visited Knox’s home, no planes flew over, something that might have led me to believe Marie exaggerated things. But Len Gross, a La Jolla resident and former software engineer, did the research for Knox and found a flight that "was at 2600 feet altitude and you are about 500 feet up [on the La Mesa ridge] so it was about 2100 feet off your ground. Should have been quite a noise."
Taking into account the height of the ridge, Gross added that his data "roughly" shows "that from about October 2017 to March of this year there were about 25 flights per month that pass within 1/2 mile of your house and are less than 2500 feet off your ground."
Still, says Gross, the majority of aircraft near Knox's residence fly at the FAA recommended 6000 feet. He maintains that the lower flying planes likely result from air traffic controllers at times changing routes to accommodate a higher than usual volume of traffic heading to Lindbergh Field.
Says Knox, "Sjohnna Knack recently told me that there are only a few low flights near my house. But I wonder what the number will become as the airport expands over the next few years.
Missed arrivals, according to Casey Schnoor, may be the airport’s most telling problem. There are two types, he tells me. First, is the action to abort a landing at a still relatively high elevation because the pilot doesn’t feel quite ready to bring the plane down. “It could be something of minor significance, such as dropping an object in the cockpit.”
The second type is initiated by air traffic control. “It’s usually done because they see another plane, or something else on the runway.”
When that happens, the plane is often much closer to the runway and the pilot must make a quick 2.5 degree turn left to fly over Point Loma. They are then flying at elevations of 1500 to 2000 feet. The left turn takes them over two elementary schools, Silver Gate and Sunset View, and Point Loma Nazarene University.
The decisions by air traffic control to abort the landings are clearly made for safety purposes. Nobody would complain about that.
“The question is what causes them,” says Schnoor.
Since 2011, the number of missed arrivals has been rising faster than airport operations (flights in and out). “This is the kind of information, after gathering all the statistics for each meeting, that ANAC should be analyzing.”
One factor, if not the major factor, is that Lindbergh Field’s single runway gets overloaded. The airlines know the demographics of where and when people most commonly want to fly, note Schnoor. So wanting to satisfy their customers, they offer flights at those times, which then become bunched up. The airlines control this, not the airport.
Schnoor appeals to Southwest Airlines to help out. “We like you coming to San Diego. So be a good neighbor. It would be good public relations.”