On March of 2015, NextGen came to the Bay Area.
NextGen is the general term for a new set of technologies that are being introduced by the FAA across the nation.
NextGen technologies hold great promise in terms of safety, efficiency, and even noise abatement – but several things have gone wrong in the implementation, for two fundamental reasons:
Airspace design hasn’t seen major changes in almost 30 years, and the FAA, as an institution, simply lost the knowledge and mindset that resulted in the relatively successful designs that were in place before the NextGen roll-out. This loss is also responsible for some of the legacy issues that have exacerbated over the years prior to the NextGen switch-over.
Additionally, changes in the legal framework that instructs the FAA were altered, and noise abatement, as part of the FAA’s charter, was removed.
As a result, noise impact was only evaluated as part of a mandatory Environmental Assessment procedure as the last step of the airspace certification process, but this was merely a pass/fail test, and used standards that are adequate for hearing protection, not for evaluating noise as a nuisance. Noise abatement was not part of the design process itself.
Additionally, the FAA failed to consider the impact of shifting noise. In the FAA’s eyes, a new route that affects the same amount of (but different!) people as the old route is equally good – an obviously explosive assumption, as everyone quickly found out.
In moving forward, it is important to realize that NextGen is here to stay. What we can do is chase down the things that went wrong and fix them. Some of the fixes are obvious and can be undertaken in very short order. Some are more complex.
It is also important to note that the FAA followed their source of authorization, the letter of the law, and their internal process and procedures. It is therefore not easy to compel them to make changes.
There are four general issues with the new airspace design:
Shifting noise patterns. This is a recurring theme with many of the routes. Communities develop around existing noise patterns. Some people buy a house under a flight path, and some prefer not to. Property values are influenced by noise levels as well, as are zoning restrictions. When noise patterns are shifted, much like a hypothetical freeway being moved laterally by a few miles, some people win the lottery, and some lose, resulting in the inevitable inter-neighborhood battles. The takeaway is simple: the lottery shouldn’t exist to begin with, and noise patterns should stay put.
Noise abatement ground tracks. The FAA did not use “human-aware” maps when designing the new procedures. This is evident with routes like SERFR, BRIXX, and SFO southern departures, and the placement of the Woodside OSI NavAid. The old routes were developed in cooperation with the communities, and followed the “paths of least resistance” between their source and destinations, taking care to avoid high-elevation communities. The new routes were charted with no consideration to the communities below, resulting in planes flying over mountain communities as low as 2500′ AGL!
Noise abatement descent profile. This is the most perplexing of the mistake trends in the NextGen implementation, since it also affects fuel efficiency, a top FAA priority. Many of the new routes are in conflict with the natural idle-power descent profile of jetliners, causing both excessive noise and fuel inefficiency – and for no apparent reason. Ironically, the old routes were much better at exactly that, and the FAA is losing out on one of its main goals in implementing NextGen.
Concentration of flight paths. The FAA was completely blindsided by the effect of highly concentrated ground tracks on the residents below, but the effect can be absolutely devastating, especially in combination with the two preceding issues. Residents that only experienced sporadic overflights have overnight been subjected to tens of flights per day, all of them exceedingly loud. This occurs mainly in places where new arrival procedures replace non-procedurized flight, such as WINDSR into OAK and to some extent BRIXX into SJC. (Though not on SERFR, since the older BSR route was already procedurized, and between SKUNK and MENLO, was every bit as concentrated) Sadly, NextGen does not have a built-in method of creating principled dispersion, and so fixing this is generally a longer-term task.
In trying to address NextGen issues, our priorities are clear:
1. Recreate the historical flight routes (ground track, altitude profile, speed restrictions) where possible.
2. Improve on the historical flight paths where possible, especially addressing NextGen-related issues.
3. Take the opportunity to address legacy problems where possible.
In all solutions, we build forward from the current Metroplex design rather than try to roll it back. We cannot, and are not aiming to, solve all air traffic noise issues in the bay area at this stage, since the NextGen impact is acute and we need to provide immediate relief. We are trying to mitigate the problems that occurred, and leave the door open for further improvements in the future. Key to that is establishing a solid non-adversarial working relationship with the FAA.
In all our actions, we are guided by a set of neutral guiding principles which we consider self-evident.
Further, Quiet Skies NorCal supports studying a “blank slate” airspace redesign, but under the following conditions:
1. The goal of the study should be an overwhelming reduction of noise impact throughout the Metroplex, bringing to bear all the capabilities that NextGen technology can provide.
2. The study must be taken with the consent and participation of all affected communities.
3. The study cannot be used to prevent or delay immediate action aimed at fixing the impact of NextGen.