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[whitespace] City joins fight to keep SFO air traffic out of South Bay

Sunnyvale--Sunnyvale officials last week joined leaders and residents from several other cities in attacking a Federal Aviation Administration proposal to reroute air traffic bound for San Francisco International Airport over the South Bay.

"It could have a significant impact on the quality of life in our community," City spokesman Dan Rich told FAA officials at a May 2 public hearing in San Jose. "We're extremely concerned."

Officials from SFO and the FAA proposed the approach changes as part of a plan to reduce delays during bad weather. An FAA environmental assessment document, the subject of Tuesday's hearing, deals with a new instrument approach system that would be installed at SFO.

FAA and SFO officials say the system would cut delays at the airport. But arriving planes would need to use modified approach routes to use the new navigational systems. This would bring many arriving flights over the South Bay.

South Bay leaders criticized the FAA for keeping them out of the loop on the plan. "Their process for getting feedback has been sorely lacking," Rich said.

But FAA spokesman Mitch Barker said the administration sent copies of the environmental document to all South Bay cities on March 20. Administrators at San Jose International Airport, operated by the City of San Jose, received notification last year, Barker said.

City of San Jose spokesperson David Vossbrink said the May 2 hearing was scheduled after San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzalez heard about the plan in April and flew to Washington to meet with Garvey. Two other hearings on the plan were held in San Mateo in April.

Under the plan, arriving aircraft would fly over the South Bay would at altitudes of about 6,000 to 8,000 feet. FAA administrators said the new approach routes wouldn't interfere with air traffic control patterns at San Jose International.

According to the FAA, a computer-generated noise model shows that noise levels would increase just one-tenth of a decibel, from the current 65 decibels measured as background noise in the South Bay.

Aviation Administration officials proposed the system, part of the Simultaneous Offset Instrument Approach/Precision Runway Monitor Project, as a temporary plan to reduce delays. The permanent solution, said SFO spokesperson Ron Wilson, is to build new runways further out in the bay, a project that won't be complete until 2006-07 at the earliest.

Existing SFO runways are only 750 feet apart, which means arriving flights can't make simultaneous approaches during bad weather. Airport officials said this can lead to delays all over the country by slowing down all traffic into SFO.

For planes to use the instrument system, approach patterns must be changed to give landing aircraft a longer final approach. Currently, planes headed for SFO begin their final approach by lining up with runways 28L or 28R about seven to 10 miles south of the airport, Barker said. The new instrument approach system would require a final approach of about 16 to 19 miles, which means all incoming air traffic would begin to converge above the southernmost tip of San Francisco Bay.

The longer approach is needed, Barker said, because the instruments put planes on paths separated by 3 degrees. Planes then converge and fly slightly closer to one another as they near the runways, he said.

According to Barker, the plan is to use the longer approach over the South Bay only during bad weather, leaving air traffic on the existing routes during the rest of the year. But Wilson said SFO and federal administrators haven't made a final decision on when planes will use the new approach.

In all likelihood, Wilson said, administrators would employ the new approach year-round so pilots would always use the same, consistent approach instead of switching because of weather.

Wilson said about 650 planes a day land at SFO. The new approach pattern would bring about 200 planes a day over the San Jose area.

Right now, planes arriving from the south cross over the Santa Cruz mountains and Palo Alto before making their final approach. Revised routes would bring those flights up over the mountains and over Los Gatos, Campbell and Santa Clara. Oceanic arrivals and some arrivals from the north, now routed over midpeninsula cities, would cross over Sunnyvale before turning toward SFO.

The new equipment and approach routes would become operational in August 2001 at the earliest, officials said.

The FAA later extended the comment period on the environmental document until July 7. The period for public comment was scheduled to end last week.

After hearing public comments, FAA officials and consultants will prepare written responses to all questions and include them in a final version of the environmental study. That version will then be forwarded to FAA administrators, who are expected to make a decision on the plan in August. If the plan is approved, construction on the $22 million navigational facilities at SFO would probably begin in September.

The FAA's consultant for the environmental report will accept written comments from the public postmarked by July 7. Send comments to: Parsons, Attention: Robert Bruneck, 2233 Watt Ave. suite 330, Sacramento, CA 95825.
Jeff Kearns

Reporter Sam Scott contributed to this report.

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