As the SLO airport grows, so do the noise complaints
Diane Fortel says she hasn’t gotten a good night’s sleep in two years.
“When you don’t sleep well, you don’t feel well. You’re grumpy, irritable. You don’t feel contentment,” Fortel said. “It certainly disturbs your entire outlook on life.”
The cause? Airplanes.
Fortel lives in the Chumash Village senior community, one of a handful of neighborhoods under flight paths of planes leaving San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport. The airport is located in the southern end of the city, off Highway 227.
Fortel has lived in Chumash Village or around the area since 1993, but was never bothered by airplane noise until two years ago.
Now, the noise is a daily annoyance.
“The noise is unbelievable, feels like the Earth is coming to an end,” Fortel, 73, said. “It makes your whole insides shake, and feels like it lasts like an earthquake lasts.”
Fortel said that the noise keeps her up at night when she is trying to fall asleep, around 11 p.m. and midnight, and wakes her up in the morning around 5:30 and 6 a.m.
“We live in this community and pay these rents to have a great quality of life, which we did until two years ago,” she said. “That has changed, and no one has done anything about it.”
In the past two years, the San Luis Obispo airport has added three new destinations — with a fourth on the way — plus four new daily flights and a new airline. Most days, there are 18 destination flights and five cargo flights.
Since 2017, the number of yearly noise complaints the airport receives has more than tripled. Starting in January, the airport has already received 934 complaints for 2019.
History of SLO County airport
The San Luis Obispo airport has historically been a small, community airport, mainly used by the military or hobbyists.
Earl Thomson and his brothers-in-law, William “Chris” and David Hoover, carved out an airstrip with a bulldozer in 1939. The airport was operated by the military until after World War II.
In 1946, the airport started passenger service, which ebbed throughout the decades.
According to the airport’s website, an air traffic control tower opened in 1988, signaling “passenger service from San Luis Obispo was here to stay.” Passenger service has particularly boomed the past two years.
And it’s not likely going to slow down, according to airport director Kevin Bumen.
“If you look at what does this airport look like in 20 years, that’s a very interesting question because it will look far different than it does today,” Bumen said. “Could we see a doubling of destinations in a decade? It’s very possible.”
Larry Fraser, an amateur pilot who used to fly out of the San Luis Obispo airport in the 1980s and ’90s, said it was always meant to be a “puddlejumper airport.”
“Maybe not everyone is in favor of turning this into the Los Angeles basin,” Fraser said. “A lot of people moved here for peace and quiet. How do you put the genie back in the bottle?”
Neighbors notice increase in airport noise
Bill Harris has lived in San Luis Obispo for 20 years and moved into a home in the Serra Meadows neighborhood four years ago. Harris and his wife were informed at the time that the neighborhood was under a flight path, but noticed no bothersome noise.
Two years ago, Harris said he noticed the noise increase significantly. The couple bought the home to retire in, but now consider moving out an option.
“We thought we would be here forever,” Harris said. “But if it continues to increase to the point of 25 or 30 flights a day, we won’t have a choice but to move. It’s a matter of our nerves.”
Tamara Keene has lived in Chumash Village for five years and has also noticed an increase in noise recently.
“When the weather is nice, you want to have the doors and windows open, but then they go by every 10 minutes,” Keene said. “It literally shakes the house and hurts your ears.”
Keene said she finds the noise unnerving, and it takes her a while to calm down. Her dog also gets rattled by the noise.
“My thing is the amount of activity. They’re always bragging we’re adding more, but how many more?” Keene said. “It seems infinitesimal, no limit.”
What can be done to abate the noise?
The San Luis Obispo airport’s noise comment form had 257 submissions in 2017, 342 in 2018 and 934 in 2019 so far.
The airport is in legal limits for noise as defined by the Federal Aviation Administration. Yet, noise is clearly still an issue for many residents.
Bumen, the airport director, said there isn’t much the airport can do to limit noise.
“It’s important for the community to know we understand and we care,” Bumen said. “But our ability to change it meaningfully is very, very limited.”
Community suggestions on how to limit noise include changing airplane flight paths, limiting hours of air service and decreasing military use. But, the airport has little legal or regulatory power to enact these suggestions or other possible solutions.
Flight paths over residential areas
Noise comments sent to the airport over the past three years include:
“I am not happy about them going over my house.”
“Over 15 flights a day now. Large jets. Becoming VERY irritating. Can they veer off a little left (west?) at takeoff avoiding direct noise over us?”
“There is no good reason why the flight path is directly over a residential area.”
Bumen said the airport has recommended flight paths for pilots to take to reduce noise in neighborhoods, but it has no power to enforce the paths. The airport also has signage on the airfield with noise abatement procedures, which cannot be enforced.
Flight paths are firstly restricted by terrain, which instrument flight procedures reflect. Pilots also follow visual flight procedures when weather is clear, so flight paths can change depending on weather.
Flight paths are managed by the FAA, and the federal government has sole sovereignty of U.S. airspace.
Bumen said the airport is working with pilots to educate them on alternative flight paths to reduce noise, which is possible in some cases.
“Our role is as an educator and adviser,” Bumen said. “Saying, ‘There’s a sensitive neighborhood here, if you can avoid it please do.’”
Potential for plane ‘curfews’ in morning, night
Some critics of airport noise want limits on late-night and early-morning flights, complaining that “The planes that are taking off between 4-5:40 a.m. are seriously disturbing my sleep” and “I am also shocked by the 5:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. Can’t we enjoy the peace of a Sunday morning?”
“Noise levels are unacceptable at 1:30 a.m. flying over general housing by the lake,” another commenter wrote. “I have to work tomorrow and being woken up in the middle of the night by planes is unacceptable.”
In the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990, Congress found curfews that were established around community noise concerns “could impede the national air transportation system” from uncoordinated hours of operation.
Because of this, airports can no longer enforce curfews. The few airports that have curfews, such as San Diego International Airport, were established before the 1990 act and grandfathered in.
There are still some steps airports can take to limit the type of aircraft at certain hours, but Bumen said the airport will remain a 24/7 operation. Individual airlines manage flight schedules, not the airport.
Military use of airport
Multiple comments specified military jets as the main source of bothersome noise.
“Why was there a fighter jet departing from SLO airport?” one commenter wrote. “What was its purpose? Is this going to be recurring?”
“We have children trying to sleep in this neighborhood and a military aircraft has been flying in circles at low altitude over and over,” another wrote. “We are parents trying to just get through the day and the loudness that these aircraft have is unreal.”
However, the airport cannot limit or regulate military aircraft operations. The airport is open to all users, which includes the military.
Bumen said military activity tends to ebb and flow, but is mostly influenced by training or fueling from Camp Roberts and Fort Hunter Liggett.
A noisy reality
“When the public thinks, ‘Why isn’t the airport doing something that’s obvious to solve this issue?,’ it’s not because we haven’t thought about these things,” Bumen said. “There’s a limited range of possibilities and what would even be effective if we could.”
However, Bumen said he hopes the community still sees positive effects the airport brings to San Luis Obispo.
“I hope the public can accept the realities of having that sort of assets in your community,” Bumen said. “It means you’re going to hear airplanes and for some people that’s just unacceptable, but at the same time it comes with tremendous benefit.”
With the airport continuing to grow, and limited solutions to limit sound, people like Keene are likely stuck living with the noise.
“I would love to move, but it isn’t feasible,” Keene said. “You can’t just pick up and move because you don’t like the airport.”