Don’t call them whiners: Neighbors of SLO airport just want a little bit of peace

What a dilemma: The added flights at the San Luis Obispo Airport are great for the local economy — but hell on the neighbors.

As recently reported by The Tribune’s Ashley Ladin, the number of noise complaints has tripled since 2017. It’s at the point where some local residents say they just can’t take it anymore.

“The noise is unbelievable, feels like the Earth is coming to an end,” a resident of the Chumash Village mobile home park told The Tribune.

If that weren’t bad enough, they have to put up with unsympathetic souls who fault them for complaining about the noise.

“People are so whiny!! So you live near an airport and want silence?” is one typical comment on The Tribune’s Facebook page.

How helpful!

For the record: San Luis Obispo residents aren’t the only “whiners.”

Complaints about airport noise in cities across the nation have skyrocketed ever since the Federal Aviation Administration started changing flight paths in 2014 as part of an air traffic modernization program called NextGen. It uses satellite-based navigation to create “optimum routes” to reduce flying time and fuel use and allow airports to accommodate more flights.

Several communities say the FAA changed flight paths without consulting them. Some have filed lawsuits against the federal agency; the city of Los Angeles did so in June.

Ian Gregor, public affairs manager for the West Coast region of the FAA, says GPS technology was used to determine approaches to the San Luis Obispo airport some time before 2014, but he isn’t aware of any plans for additional changes.

What do neighbors want?

Residents we spoke with who live near the SLO airport aren’t asking for the impossible. They fully anticipated there would be some noise when they moved in, but not at the level and frequency they are hearing now.

They just wish the airport could be a better neighbor.

Several said the situation could be much improved if pilots followed a different flight path that avoided residential developments.

Airport Director Kevin Bumen told The Tribune the airport can recommend that, but it can’t require it. Nor can it do much else to improve the situation for neighbors, such as banning early-morning and late-night flights.

“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.”

No wonder residents are frustrated. It’s hard to believe that airport management really cares when at the same time it’s throwing up its hands and saying the noise is beyond its control.

If that’s the case, why even bother tracking noise complaints?

At the very least, officials involved in running and regulating the airport should invite residents to a town hall meeting where they can review noise regulations, answer questions and discuss possible remedies.

Be sure to include representatives of the FAA, since they appear to be the ones in real control.

And according to its Community Involvement Manual, the FAA values public input.

“While community involvement does not always lead to a broadly supported decision, especially where there is a wide diversity of community views, decisions informed by community concerns can better serve the collective public interest and build trust in the FAA,” it says.

How much noise is too much?

The FAA has determined that a 24-hour average noise level over 65 decibels (dB) is “significant” and incompatible with residential neighborhoods.

How loud is 65 decibels?

Conversational speech is generally 60 dB; an alarm clock, 70 dB; a car horn, 110 dB; and a jet engine at 100 feet away can be as loud as 140 dB.

But remember, the FAA deals in terms of averages.

An individual event — such as a jet taking off — could be much louder than 65 decibels, but as long as the 24-hour average is below 65, that’s considered OK.

Disgruntled neighbors who live near the San Francisco Airport describe it like this on the website www.sforunwaynoise.com.

“Dropping a feather on someone’s head every minute for one hour, followed by a large brick, would result in the conclusion that, on average, the total impact is equal to dropping a ping pong ball every minute for one hour.”

Airports that exceed noise limits can be eligible for FAA funding for programs that offer soundproofing for homes near airports.

Bumen says the San Luis Obispo Airport has stayed within noise guidelines, but that’s small comfort to neighbors who have been awakened at 5:30 a.m.

They also are concerned that it could get worse in the future, as still more flights are added. They want the airport to impose some conditions — such as allowing only certain types of aircraft that are less noisy — before agreeing to any additional flights.

That brings us back to the dilemma.

San Luis Obispo needs a full-service airport that offers flights to a variety of destinations.

That’s critical to recruiting companies that will provide jobs to replace those lost when Diablo Canyon closes. It also will promote San Luis Obispo County as a tourist destination and will be convenient for locals traveling out of the area.

But in accommodating airlines, the airport can’t ignore the health and welfare of neighboring residents.

If the airport truly cares, it will strive for compromises that allow for expanded air service — without further jeopardizing the well-being of nearby residents.

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