The Federal Aviation Administration says its NextGen modernization of the nation’s air traffic control system saves six minutes of taxi time during bad weather and that 62,345,728 passengers benefited from quicker flights and on-time arrivals in 2016 as a result of the changes, which is nothing if not specific.
Some of you remain less than thrilled, however. Across the nation, people who never heard a jet overhead prior to implementation of NextGen complained that they were suddenly assaulted by sound. They also worried that jet fuel particulate could be making them sick. Here on the coast, many people noticed the change. They have been active and engaged in working toward some solution. That is great, as long as they see the forest for the trees.
Amid the claims and counterclaims, it’s easy to lose sight of the goal of the project. The FAA is seeking to replace older radar technology with a satellite-based global positioning system. The agency says it combines benefits from dozens if not hundreds of technological upgrades that make it possible for planes to fly closer to one another and to do so more safely than before. It promises fewer delays and more direct routes.
It also means replacing some old flight patterns with new ones. In some instances, flights have been rerouted lower or over neighborhoods that never heard a jet engine before — and that includes neighborhoods on the Peninsula.
The clash between a federal agency and local communities, including the Coastside, has spawned a predictable rash of legislative committees and fun new acronyms. A roundtable convened around concerns arising from San Francisco International Airport, which sometimes sends airplanes over the San Mateo County coast. FAA administrators have been called to task by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier and others. President Donald Trump even threatened to privatize air traffic control, though he seems to have forgotten all about that one.
The FAA has certainly heard the complaints. According to a Speier release, the agency has initiated a “seven-step process” to evaluate all suggestions. That certainly sounds impressive unless the seventh step is “ignore the public.” And some Bay Area residents suggest that is essentially what has happened at this point, after years of back and forth.
Lately, some Peninsula residents have grown frustrated. There is talk of filing suit, as some Southern California communities have, in an attempt to force more flights over the bay and ocean, steeper take-off and landing angles to limit low-flying aircraft and other mitigation measures. They also say they may stage a symbolic walkout of an upcoming government meeting on the topic.
It is hard to imagine a system more complicated than modern air traffic control. Aircraft of varying speeds and sizes are heading in a hundred directions in a 3-D environment. Every day, FAA air traffic controllers shepherd 42,000 flights across 29 million square miles of air space. Tweaking the system is bound to ease concerns in one place and compound them in others. There are problems, to be sure, but the success of the system generally is nearly miraculous.
We urge citizens and our elected leaders to seek accommodations to ease the problems associated with jet travel without lawsuits and acrimony. The nation’s air traffic control system was long overdue for an upgrade.