Changes in air traffic renew plea to move flights off Point Reyes

David Briggs
A ground navigation aid on the top of Mount Vision is slated for decommissioning under a new plan underway at the F.A.A.

Fears that growing airline traffic and new satellite-based flight control will amplify the noise of planes crossing Marin airspace, particularly over what many believe should be peaceful parkland, has prompted the county’s Board of Supervisors to renew an effort to reroute planes

The Federal Aviation Administration is conducting environmental assessments of proposed changes to 21 metropolitan areas with heavy traffic as part of its NextGen program. Those changes will result in a nationwide switch from ground-based navigation aids like the one on Mount Vision to satellite and radar. 

The review of the Northern California Metroplex, which includes the San Francisco, San José, Oakland and Sacramento airports, is due for completion in 2014. It provides the perfect window for Marin to entreat the F.A.A. to evaluate rerouting, said Michael McEneany, a 15-year Inverness resident and former Emeryville firefighter who has helped lead the effort.

“Moving the status quo ain’t easy. We really have to hit hard, strike while the iron is hot,” he said. 

Planes that currently fly over Point Reyes on their way to area airports could instead cut through underutilized military airspace offshore, he said. If it doesn’t happen now, Mr. McEneany fears inertia and bureaucracy will stymie change for some time to come. 

The F.A.A. says that the new program will reduce delays and emissions because precise satellites using G.P.S. will streamline flight paths. According to the administration’s calculations, planes in the Northern Californian Metroplex will use 2.3 million fewer gallons of gas, based on current traffic levels.

But according to a letter from Judy Arnold, the president of the county Board of Supervisors, that technology, which will also make flight paths more consistent, could increase noise levels over Point Reyes. “New technology will concentrate air traffic into more accurate and repeatable flight tracks, focusing more noise on those below,” she wrote to the F.A.A. this month.

Though the noise levels are not as severe as they once were thanks to traffic improvements made over the years, Mr. McEneany repeated Ms. Arnold’s concern that noise could worsen under the new proposal. He added that increased flight traffic could also make the current routing more bothersome. 

Though the recession caused the number of annual domestic and international passengers in the United States to fall between 2007 and 2009, the trend has reversed and passenger loads have increased ever since. “It’s going to be hell on the poor buggers that live underneath those tracks,” Mr. McEneany said. 

In a map of flight paths over the Bay Area that he provided, the red lines of arrivals converge into a thick, indistinguishable mass atop Inverness.

Marin came within a hair’s breadth of achieving a rerouting back in 2001, when former Rep. Lynn Woolsey persuaded Jane Garvey, at the time the head administrator of the F.A.A., to visit the county. But after 9/11, national security superseded those concerns and the possibility of using military airspace vanished. 

Mr. McEneany, who sits on the Oakland Airport Noise Abatement Forum, helped lead the charge both during the first go-around and the more recent effort. Although he knew about the current NextGen project from his position on the forum, he only learned about the ongoing environmental assessment a few months ago. He alerted Supervisor Steve Kinsey and aide Liza Crosse, who led the Board of Supervisors to send a letter to the F.A.A. on Dec. 4.

Mr. McEneany says he became involved back in 2001 because of the severity of the noise. He and his wife would hear numerous planes overhead during hour-long walks on the Inverness Ridge—an aural assault he found both unreasonable and unnecessary. “You wouldn’t create this incredible big park and then run a freeway through it,” he said. 

The effort is important, Mr. McEneany argues, because routing flights over coastal Marin in particular undermines the raison d’etre for the broad swaths of public recreational land and wilderness, which include not only the seashore but the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, state parks and county parks and open space, which are used by locals, the greater Bay Area and tourists from around the country.

Asked whether people might miss the opportunity to observe Point Reyes from the firmament, Mr. McEneany said it was a small price to pay. “It’s the greater good, and the greater good serves the entire
nation. Both the supervisors and Mr. McEneany believe there are no notable environmental impacts to rerouting flights offshore, since it avoids pushing noise onto another community. 

F.A.A. representative Ian Gregor said in an email that the potential impacts of any evaluated routes would be disclosed once the environmental assessment is complete. At that point, the public will be able to comment and attend informational workshops.