Why are planes suddenly flying so low over these Sacramento neighborhoods?

It’s a tale of sound and fury. For decades, as subdivisions popped up in Natomas, residents have periodically complained about noise from jets taking off on a low arc out of Sacramento International Airport.

Typically, those complaints are dismissed. Planes have been flying in and out of the airport for a half-century, long before the basin’s farms began morphing into streets packed with homes, schools and grocery stores. Planes have airspace rights, even over bedrooms.

Now, a new group is challenging the airport jet noise, but with a twist: The airport, they say, has “moved” its operations closer to them, not the other way around. More jets than ever are now cruising over their homes, seconds after take-off, starting many mornings at 5:30 a.m. with an unwelcome alarm.

“It’s deafening,” said Sheila Snyder, whose Natomas home sits west of Interstate 5, four miles southeast of the airport. “It’s ridiculous. We can see bird flocks flying higher than they are.”

She’s among a handful of residents in the growing North Natomas communities, including Westlake and Westshore, who say a federal decision four years ago to change the routes for planes taking off from the airport has disrupted their lives. Previously, jets fanned out over a wider area, some heading on more southerly routes closer to the Sacramento River. But now jets make tight left turns immediately after takeoff, sending them on a narrow path over more densely-populated areas.

The changes are part of a Federal Aviation Administration project called Next Generation Air Transportation System, or NextGen, aimed at streamlining flight routes, making air travel more efficient, safe and environmentally friendly. The changes, based on computer analysis, have been controversial at numerous airports nationally.

Snyder’s group contends those changes were made without regard to what was underneath the new flight paths. “It’s the only thing (former President) Obama did wrong,” said Snyder.

More plane complaints coming

While noise complaints in Sacramento are not new, current and future growth plans in Natomas, coupled with increased flights, suggest the potential for more conflict ahead.

The airport is on a dramatic business upswing. In 2014, when Sacramento was coming out of the recession, the airport registered 80,000 commercial air carrier flights. Last year, with aviation now booming and the local economy on the rise, the airport handled 110,000 flights.

Plans are in place for a major new housing subdivision called Greenbriar close to the airport northwest of the I-5 intersection with Highway 99. It will be under flight paths for some jets heading north.

Last month the county Board of Supervisors gave developers the OK to start planning a massive 10,000-home series of subdivisions on farmland southeast of the airport, in an area once called the Boot, and now referred to as the Upper Westside project area.

Upper Westside project map
Source: Sacramento County

In a letter to the FAA last month, Snyder’s group called on federal officials to back the planes off. In addition to noise concerns, they say they also worry about bird strikes disabling planes over populated areas.

New Sacramento airports director Cindy Nichol forwarded the group’s request to the FAA, adding her own note encouraging the FAA to answer promptly. “It is desirable and fair to all that FAA respond,” Nichol wrote. For their part, Nichol and airport officials say they defer to the FAA, which has authority on plane routes.

FAA officials said last week they will respond to the airport and the residents’ group. “We received the airport’s letter, are reviewing the concerns in it and will respond in an appropriate time frame,” spokesman Ian Gregor said in an email.

Both the FAA and airport officials point out that noise modeling, done on computers, indicates jet noise on average meets state and federal standards. A federal environmental analysis covering four Northern California airports determined any added noise from the new routes was not significant enough to require mitigation.

‘You could almost touch them’

Some residents who complain are newcomers, having moved into the still-growing area in the last few years as new home construction took off again post-recession. But others have been living in the area longer and say the overflight noise has rarely been this bad.

One longtime resident, Karen O’Haire, said she visited her home site before she moved in 17 years ago to make sure the overflights would be tolerable. She is among those who want the FAA to change the flights back to pre-2015 patterns.

Some days, she says, she calls the airport complaint telephone line repeatedly, each time a jet streams overhead. “I believe people should call so it’s on record,” she said.

Interviews with Natomas residents found varying levels of annoyance with the flights. Some said they simply have gotten used to the highway overhead. Others find each jet’s passage grating.

Some engines are more noticeable than others. During several visits last week, a Sacramento Bee reporter heard engines with high-pitched whines, others that delivered a rumbling sound that echoed off facades, and still others that sounded smoother and less bothersome.

At times, jets sped overhead in one-minute intervals, notably at times between 5:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. On Wednesday morning just after 6 a.m., 20 jets flew over the west Natomas communities in a one-hour period, banking sharply from the runway and curving to the east roughly along the Del Paso Road alignment.

“It feels like you could almost touch them,” resident Suzanne Graham said, sitting in her car in Westshore before her morning commute.

Other times, notably mid-day, a half hour passed without a jet. Some days, depending on weather, jets take off to the north, sparing most Natomas neighborhoods.

Sacramento’s noise issues are not unique. Challenges to FAA’s NextGen route changes are happening at airports around the country under a loose-knit grass roots effort called “Quiet Skies.”

A Phoenix lawsuit forced the FAA to alter flights. Maryland recently sued the FAA, contending the government did not conduct suitable noise studies or adequately review its plans with the community before changing the flight paths out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Last month, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously instructed its airports division to request the FAA reconsider new flight paths that have increased noise complaints from 18 to 300 per month near the Van Nuys Airport.

Forty members of Congress, including 14 from California, have formed a Quiet Skies Coalition to push the FAA to do more to consider the noise impacts on communities, including studying whether consistent levels of jet noise cause long-term health issues.

A school in the path

Last month, the Natomas Unified School District board voted unanimously to build a K-8 school on farmland under the flight path west of the Westlake community, making the school one of the closest developed sites to the airport.

Under the Sacramento’s airport land use compatibility plan, school officials were required to redraw the school layout a few months ago because part of the playground was on the wrong side of the airport’s noise and safety contour line.

While the school site is legal, airport officials said they would have preferred the district put the school somewhere else.

“Our comments (in a recent environmental report) encourage them to explore other sites they had identified ... in hopes they would consider moving it away from the airport, for noise and safety,” airport planning manager Glen Rickelton said.

School officials said they reviewed 19 other potential sites and determined this one to be best.

School officials have taken a different view of the overflights than Snyder and O’Haire’s group. The current school site, to be replaced, is also under the flight path, a third of a mile farther from the airport, and that hasn’t been a noise problem, they said.

The new school design will reduce interior noise levels. The district also agreed to send notices to families at the start of each school year informing them that the site “is or may be at a future date exposed to low and frequent airport overflights, aircraft, noise, vibrations, fumes, dust, fuel particles.”

Several parents and students testified at a school district board hearing in March they are not concerned about jets overhead.

“Many students who attend Paso Verde (school) ... live in homes near the school. We hear the planes flying overhead when we are playing, when we are out,” said Yating Campbell, a school parent. “We know the flight path. We bought homes. We know what we are getting into. So building the school a few blocks away is not going to change the impact of the planes flying over the area.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee