Sky Posse Palo Alto

Dear Friends, 

In March, the City of Palo Alto had a study session on the Airport and is launching a process to plan for Palo Alto Airport’s future on Wednesday, May 17, 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM at the airport. 

We know that aviation’s emphasis on R&D or improvements in aircraft fleets to manage airport toxins are insufficient to address ongoing operational needs or new aircraft models which can exacerbate noise or introduce new sources of noise. Planning for the future of the airport needs investments that don’t just rely on promises about the future. Night noise and vulnerable populations (elderly, youth, and children) are not considered by the FAA except as topics of research.

In this update:

  • Federal rules protect airports, not citizens or the natural environment
  • Three organizational/legal issues about the City and the airport 
  • How will Palo Alto plan without regulations to address aircraft noise?
  • FAA response to public comment on FAA processes 

Federal rules protect airports:

The country’s half century old rules about aviation impacts protect airports and don’t consider health hazards from airport noise and ultrafine particle pollution. Sky Posse’s priorities for the 2023 FAA Reauthorization list some of the areas that need urgent attention.

In an example of lax federal regulatory oversight (related to the recent banking defaults), the Federal Reserve outlined its regulatory oversight failures, as follows: 

1) Regulatory standards were too low, 

2) Supervision did not work with sufficient force and urgency 

3) Failure exposed consequences “not contemplated.” 

The same failures can be said about airport governance. What will raise environmental standards for airports? What is needed to establish fines or other incentives to protect people from airport operations? Where is the oversight and funding to adequately measure, abate, and mitigate toxins from airport traffic? 

In response to the FAA’s solicitation about noise policy, we will have an opportunity to look at the lack of regulatory oversight in more detail - how the risks of aircraft noise are transferred entirely to unsuspecting citizens, leaving the public with little recourse. Airport noise governance is all “voluntary” and the FAA and airports act as one. They enjoy a legal advantage because the courts mostly defer to the FAA. Legal challenges to Nextgen made by City Attorneys in Southern CA, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, have helped put concerns on the record, but no Bay Area government has legally challenged the FAA on Nextgen, or taken up health impacts from airport noise. The FAA claims that noise is a “shared responsibility” but the weak regulatory framework speaks for itself; local, state and federal authorities know more about what is “not” their responsibility.

Three organizational/legal issues about the City, the FAA and airport:

1.The City applies for FAA money to maintain and grow the airport. The FAA gives money in exchange for assurances that airports will not impose any restrictions on growth or noise.

FAA “grant assurances” prevent municipalities from protecting people from aviation toxins, noise and air pollution. Municipalities knowingly enter into these covenants. Local press recently ran a headline that the “FAA won’t let the city crack down on leaded fuel or noise at airport” but Council willingly - and without community outreach or engagement - gives City staff the power to apply for, and sign FAA grants. The current city budget Attachment A states that “Staff intends to continue applying for FAA grants.”

The FAA’s unreasonable grant assurances are inconsistent with community values about community health and safety. The City’s own concerns about FAA policies listed in this March 30, 2022 City letter did not appear in airport discussions.

The description of the Palo Alto Airport Long-Range Facilities & Sustainability Plan states it is funded by the Federal Aviation Administration and the City of Palo Alto. The City and the FAA need to be more forthcoming about airport grant assurances, and it’s time to explore reforms in light of the FAA’s Noise Policy Review.

2. Palo Alto’s studies to take over the airport from Santa Clara County did not consider noise or airport pollution: 

3. Palo Alto Airport impacts East Palo Alto, a community that should have the protection of Executive Orders - laws independent of FAA rules that call for heightened environmental considerations for low income and minority populations.

The FAA and airports have so far neglected this. When the FAA rolled out Nextgen, the zip code 94303 shared by East Palo Alto and Palo Alto were treated the same, and East Palo Alto was not given additional attention indicating scant due diligence. Executive Orders demand assessments of cumulative impacts. The orders that apply are President Clinton's , and President Biden's.

It’s important for the City to explain how all applicable environmental laws will be carried out before decision making about long term plans for the airport.

How will Palo Alto plan, without regulations to address aircraft noise?

At the March 6 airport study session, Council suggested that new entrants like electric vertical take-off and landing aircrafts (eVTOL) will be “quieter.” Europe has published a proposal about eVTOL regulation which takes “noise certification standard applicable to heavy helicopters as a starting point” for their evaluations. There are other issues to be cautious about, such as the local environment where these vehicles are expected to operate in; how they will operate, at what altitudes, and the fact that unlike the European regulatory framework, US regulators do not take responsibility when the FAA and airports offload pollution risks from private ventures to the public. At best, it is premature to use the terms “quiet” or “quieter” for any airport operations and as long as the FAA continues to delay addressing, as it has for ten years, the agency's highly controversial methods of assessing noise.


It’s up to elected officials to avoid misleading or promotional comments about still unknown noise effects from new operations. They can help provide balance in investments to address health hazards and citizen concerns which should be an airport owner’s highest priority.

FAA response to public comment on FAA processes: 

Efforts to understand the FAA’s public involvement in Performance-Based-Navigation, PBN activities received a response from the FAA’s Acting Regional Administrator, Western Region. Our preliminary observations about the FAA’s letter are as follows: 

  • The FAA has many departments, with various interests and, while “stakeholders are in the conversation early” to make PBN changes, this could still exclude citizens who stand to be negatively affected.
  • FAA says environmental decision-making happens before PBN implementation (the final step) and without pre-decisional environmental determinations. It seems, however, that if the FAA does not engage the public early, per the 2018 guide to involve the public early in PBN, FAA may be deciding on a CATEX at the outset.
  • The FAA looks to Roundtables and airports for consensus on airspace changes but the FAA does not have criteria, documentation standards, or oversight for these processes which operate with unilaterally set rules that don’t observe FAA rules for Precision-Based-Navigation, NEPA or GAO recommendations

We appreciate hearing from FAA leadership and look forward to addressing PBN public involvement further as part of the FAA’s solicitation for comments on Noise Policy Review. Please consider viewing some of the brief and informative Noise Policy video series that are on the FAA's Noise Policy Review webpage.

Thank you!