Life Under the Flight Path

On average, Lindbergh Field (also known as San Diego International Airport) performs 620 operations a day: 310 departures and 310 arrivals.

All 620 of these operations are performed, whether planes are coming or going, over several San Diego neighborhoods.

Despite this, some of these neighborhoods — the worst affected include Banker’s Hill, Loma Portal, and Ocean Beach — are well developed and populated with a mix of rental apartments, condos, and single-family homes.

“From the end of the runway to the ocean is right at three miles,” says Dan Frazee, the director of Airport Noise Mitigation for the San Diego County Airport Authority. “[But] the noise impact area is .92 miles…[It has] just under 10,000 dwelling units and a population of just under 23,000.”

The planes fly disarmingly low over Banker’s Hill, especially, as they land at Lindbergh not far away. Shayna Banfe and Emilie Schneider’s apartment, a white, airy loft with a small patio, is no exception. The planes pass overhead and swoop downwards past their back French doors; the sound is both low- and high-pitched, a deep rumble accompanied by a reedy, mechanical whine. The planes skim past the apartment’s skylight, casting a shadow on the couch below.

Deciding whether to live directly under passing aircraft was something Schneider and Banfe had to discuss when they went apartment-hunting three months ago.

“We actually talked about it,” says Schneider. “We said, ‘It’s a little bit risky,’ but it’s just more fun out here.”

So far, Schneider and Banfe are enjoying their apartment just off Fourth Avenue. They considered living in Golden Hill, in a house Banfe describes as “cute” and “tucked away,” but ultimately decided Banker’s Hill was more for them.

Before moving in, the duo wasn’t certain what to expect.

“We weren’t totally sure how bad it was,” Banfe says, “because when we came [and looked at the apartment] we said, ‘We have to make a conscious effort to hear it.’ But we didn’t. We were trying to [get] examples of what it really was like, but we just sort of went for it without totally knowing.”

The typical aircraft, according to Mechanical Engineering Magazine, generates an average of “150 decibels at a distance of 100 feet.” For this reason, Lindbergh enforces a strict curfew, disallowing planes from departing from 11:30 p.m.–6:30 a.m., ensuring that the late-night and early-morning hours remain noise-free. Airlines that break curfew are fined $2000 for their first violation, $6000 for their second, and $10,000 if all violations fall within a six-month period.

The curfew, while it may limit the number of flights out of Lindbergh, does not, however, limit planes flying in. Aircraft may arrive at any time of night, as mandated by the federal government.

“They say, ‘You are a 24-hour operation,’ ” says Frazee. “There’s only one airport I’m aware of that has both an arrival and departure curfew, and that’s John Wayne [in Orange County].”

Frazee estimates that the planes in question, which as they fly over Banfe and Schneider’s loft are on arrival, can come as close as 400 feet from a given building when landing at the San Diego International Airport.

Still, when searching for their apartment, Banfe and Schneider remained undeterred by the flight path. They are now comfortably settled in beneath it.

“Everyone I talked to when we were trying to decide [if] we would live in the flight path, they said you get totally used to it, it’s just like city noises and stuff,” says Schneider, speaking of friends who live in Ocean Beach.

“I don’t think they understood how close we are,” she adds.

The planes are more than close enough for Selin Bahar — who lives not far away, on Fifth Avenue, just off Hawthorn — to be able to distinguish each carrier by the noise of its aircraft.

“If we went to the balcony, I could guess which plane was what from the way they sound,” she says.

While Bahar is used to living with constant noise, she concedes that there are times when it does bother her, such as when she’s trying to watch a movie. She puts a positive spin on it: “[The noise] bothered me until I realized that, when I hear the planes, it’s always a reminder that there is life out there, and people are traveling, and traveling is a big part of me,” she says. “So even if I can’t go home to Turkey and visit my family, I know that there’s this possibility that one of them could get on a plane or that I could get on a plane and go back.”

Others cope in different ways. Eventually, they say, the noise from the planes fades neatly into the background. Gary Sehnert, who has lived in the flight path since the late ’80s, explains how he got used to it after only a few weeks.

“Every time a plane went over, I convinced myself I was sucking up the energy of the engines as they got louder,” he says, “and after a little while, it worked. You do get used to it, I think. You learn to punctuate your conversations and keep the remote handy when watching TV, to turn up the volume and then back down.”

Even so, Sehnert, who lives on West Ivy Street, was unsure of how he would cope with the noise when he first moved.

“I wasn’t sure I could handle the planes,” he says. “The view was neat and all that, and it’s a neat location. I really wanted it to work.”

And it has. In 1998, Sehnert purchased his house, which is just up the street from where he lived his first years in San Diego. His home, ironically painted a periwinkle-ish “infinity and beyond” blue, is in the middle of a hill, with a dramatic view of the harbor. The planes fly directly overhead at a distance that he estimates is less than the length of a football field.

Sehnert can’t say enough good things about the neighborhood.

“I’ve got great restaurants [and] the bay,” he says. “When I got home from law school [in the ’80s], every day I used to take a walk down by the harbor, or in Balboa Park, or wherever. I can see downtown, but it’s fairly nice residential streets down here.”

While the noise is considerable from inside his home, it passes quickly.

“Ninety-five percent of the time,” Sehnert says, “the planes are landing over us, and from the first time you hear them until the time they’re gone, [it’s about] 15 seconds. When they’re landing they’re gunning down, their engines are slowing, but when they take off, they’re full throttle. It’s much louder, and it’s much longer. I know what it’s like because occasionally they do take off from here. But very rarely.”

In Ocean Beach, which is situated in the takeoff pattern, the noise is very different. While the planes are higher in the air, their sound does, as Sehnert described, have a longer duration.

Shane Finneran, a board member of the Ocean Beach Planning Board, lives with his wife Kirsten in a cottage-style apartment just off Sunset Cliffs Boulevard. Finneran grew up in Ocean Beach and Point Loma, living under the flight path, and returned to the area after college.

“There’s different ways of looking at it,” he says. “Frequency of flights, it’s pretty frequent, they’re every couple of minutes. I think the airport says that, at peak times, it’s every 90 seconds. Although the other side of it is, in terms of how bad it is, I usually don’t even notice when they fly over, unless they’re particularly loud.”

He pauses.

“In terms of actual impact, once you get used to them, they’re really not there,” he says.

“For me, it’s almost become white noise,” Kirsten adds. “You just kind of get adapted to it.”

In Loma Portal, it’s louder still than in Ocean Beach, as the planes are lower in the sky.

Bob Wilder lives in a Craftsman home on Elliott Street, right under the path of the departing planes. He bought his home in the ’80s as a fixer-upper, with full knowledge that it was beneath the flight path.

“I knew that these houses were valuable,” he says simply. “I knew the planes were loud, but I had no problem with them.”

When asked why he chose to live in such a noisy part of town, he replies, “Location, location, location… People aren’t worried about those planes because we’ve got the cutest little schools and things down here. My kids walked to school. Walked right up a very safe street, with the little gas lamps, right up to Loma Portal. I felt safe with them walking to school.”

Chris, a 30-year homeowner, lives just southwest of Chatsworth Boulevard. His house is a pretty, white Monterey Colonial with well-kept front and side yards.

“When I came to San Diego,” he says, “I decided to live in the Point Loma area. In 1976, I noticed that housing prices under the flight path were about 20 percent lower than outside of the flight path. My wife and I therefore felt that by buying here we could afford a larger and more attractive house, one that better met our requirements.” He pauses. “I always hoped that the airport would move because they were talking about moving it just as seriously 30 years ago as they are now.”

Until recently, the Airport Authority was thinking of moving to a new location. In 2006, the Miramar Plan proposed to move the airport over by the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. “Proposition 1A” passed in 1994, but the plan was never put into action. Re-proposed in 2006, it was rejected by voters, even though, according to the Union-Tribune, Lindbergh is expected to exceed its capacity for both planes and travelers by 2015 and 2022, respectively.

“The flight path will not change,” says Peninsula Planning Board member Suhail Khalil, “[because] with a single runway, [the] Federal Aviation Administration allows only two flight paths for safety reasons…. San Diego International Airport doesn’t have the space to add a second runway…nor is it a feasible long-term solution to the airport’s maximization of Lindbergh Field.”

According to Jay Shumaker, an architect and Peninsula Planning Board member, “The short-term plan for Lindbergh is the same short-term plan that was developed years ago. Add a few gates and parking. They’ve also planned to move the rental cars off the waterfront. To the short-range plan, I have no objection. San Diego must stay in the game economically.”

Some, however, disagree with how the airport is handling its current situation.

Lance Murphy, a Point Loma resident, argues that the airport, as it reaches its physical limits, will pose more and more of a problem.

“As the airport gets closer to its capacity, they’re going to have more and more unplanned excursions,” says Murphy. “That is dangerous. First and foremost, I don’t want to be near an airport that’s dangerous. And as we get too close to capacity, it’s going to get more dangerous.”

Murphy is the founder of SANNoise.org, formed, as its website states, by “a couple of concerned residents that would like the Airport Authority to demonstrate some respect for the communities impacted by the planned growth of Lindbergh Field.”

“The airport is about at its capacity,” Murphy, who is both an engineer and a business consultant, explains. “There were 227 [thousand] flights last year — 260 is what the FAA says is the rational productive limit. The airport keeps touting 300 as the ultimate physical limit. That would be like saying that the freeway can handle 300,000 cars. As soon as you [have] a breakdown, as soon as you have bumper to bumper, any kind of mishap, production goes down.”

Murphy began to get involved with airport issues four years ago when he noticed planes taking off farther south than their original course.

“I went to the [Airport Authority] board, and I said, ‘Guys, you’re doing something wrong, and you need to help me fix it. You’re allowing these airplanes to take off south, and it [is] disrupting more and more people.’ ”

Eventually, he says, the Federal Aviation Administration remedied the problem, implementing a precision departure system of GPS points to keep the planes within their original flight path.

Murphy, who lives on Santa Monica Avenue in Point Loma, 50 feet outside the loudest portion of the flight path, is also a member of the Peninsula Community Planning Board. This organization advises the City of San Diego on various land-use and community issues regarding Point Loma and some of the surrounding areas, such as Loma Portal and Ocean Beach Highlands, and has a representative at the San Diego County Airport Authority’s Airport Noise Advisory Committee. Members of Golden Hill, Little Italy, Midway, and Ocean Beach community associations have seats as well.

The last meeting, which was held March 20 in the Commuter Terminal building at Lindbergh, addressed issues of curfew violations and complaint statistics and updated members on studies that are being conducted regarding the airport and noise. Additionally, two statistical presentations were given, one on “early turn” — which is when planes violate the approved turning radius — and the other on “head to head” — which is when planes depart to the west instead of to the east, usually due to weather difficulties.

Frazee’s role as director, which includes acting as a representative at these meetings, is, he says, “to work with the community to try and mitigate aircraft noise to the maximum extent possible for the most noise-impacted communities.”

The Airport Noise Mitigation department, in addition to hosting the bimonthly Airport Noise Advisory Committee meetings, has set up a 24-hour hotline for residents to report noise violations. The department, consisting of Frazee, two technicians, and an administrative coordinator, listens to and reviews each complaint, logs it, and investigates claims that need to be addressed.

Currently, they are in the process of amending their two-part noise compatibility program study.

“The federal government says that a 65-decibel contour is the contour at which people become significantly annoyed at noise,” says Frazee. He points to a map on his desk that shows the portion of San Diego affected most by the airport noise, a section defined by a red almost-oval. “That’s that contour.” He points at a series of marks. “And those dots with the numbers on them are where our 25 noise monitors are that define the contour for us. So [when] an airplane comes and makes a noise, it comes back to our central computer that says, ‘This is 65 decibels.’ ”

The second part of the study reviews programs that are in existence to help communities cope with aircraft noise, determining whether they are effective.

“Part 2 [looks] at the programs that are out there now,” says Frazee, “[and determines if] they continue to help the community and [if] there is anything out there that technology has come out with that could conceivably help the neighbors even more.”

Inside Chris’s home in Loma Portal, the planes’ rumble is just enough to interrupt a conversation, but it’s nothing compared to what it could be — and was — a number of years ago. Chris’s home and scores of others have been greatly noise-reduced thanks to the Quieter Home Program, an initiative run by the San Diego Regional Airport Authority, the same venture that owns Lindbergh Field and funded largely by the FAA. The program, started in 1999, seeks to “quiet” homes by replacing old windows with updated, double-paned panels and adding insulation, even in older houses, where “matching” the replacements has in the past proven difficult. All of this, including labor, comes at no cost to the homeowner and is reported by the Quieter Home Program to reduce the noise level by five decibels, a difference that the website describes as “noticeable.”

Not all houses are eligible for the Quieter Home Program. They must be either a single-family home or contain under six housing units (though this may change); more importantly, they must receive no less than 65 decibels — considered “a normally unacceptable” amount of loudness, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — of aircraft noise.

Bob Wilder, like Chris, had his house outfitted free of charge, thanks to the Quieter Home Program.

“They dropped ten guys off at my house with tools, and they worked for a week,” he says. “A week. The men told me that this installation was over $100,000 since I had so many windows and doors. And, since this house is over 100 years old, those windows and doors had to be wood wherever they could be seen.”

Still, despite all the positive points associated with the Quieter Home Program, there have been grievances along the way. Sehnert, who was chosen by lottery to be in the pilot program for Quieter Home, describes the hassles he went through during his home’s renovation.

“This was my home office,” he says, “and before [coming in] they told me, ‘You can continue to work here. You might lose your phone or computer connection for 15 minutes or something while we’re changing things over.’ ” The entire process was supposed to take just a few weeks. But “it was well over a month, a month and a half maybe, [that] it was being worked on. My boss — I was importing wine from Mexico — my boss in Mexico said he thought I’d just quit or something. I had no contact with anybody; my phones were out, my computers were out.”

Wilder had similar problems.

“There were some good laborers and some bad laborers,” he says. “I had a lot of neighbors who talk about not getting very good work. But I got good work because I was here all the time. Homeowners who were going to be away at work — and some of these are widowed women and stuff — their windows didn’t close correctly. My labor was good because I had them fire a few guys on the job who weren’t painters. I called the main guy and he sent over a good painter, and he knew exactly how to do it, and I was happy then. So I got good stuff; all my stuff is wonderful.”

Sehnert is also happy with the work, even considering the tribulations that came along with it.

“I’m so thankful for what they did,” he says. “They did about $70,000 worth of work to the house. They furred out the inside of all the exterior walls with these big metal furring strips, they put in insulation and new drywall, and then they painted it. New central heating and air conditioning. The wiring was very old, so they rewired the house. It was just an incredible windfall.”

Chris is thankful for what the Quieter Home Program has done.

“[The aircraft noise] used to be much worse,” he says, “A, because the house wasn’t quieted, so obviously there was more noise, and B, because the airplanes used to be noisier. Now there are more airplanes, but they’re less noisy.”

Since 1990, when the Airport Noise and Capacity Act was passed by Congress, planes have become quieter. The act, put in place with the specific goal of hushing aircraft noise pollution, required a phaseout of older planes and a fresh set of technical regulations for newer ones to follow. All planes over 75,000 pounds had to comply with the regulations by December 2003.

“The air carriers had to do one of three things,” Frazee explains. “They either had to buy newer, quieter airplanes, or they could re-engine their airplanes with newer engines that were quieter. They could [also use] what are called ‘hush kits,’ which are like mufflers around an engine that quiets it down.”

The Quieter Home Program does, however, come with a catch. Each homeowner is required to sign an avigation easement, an agreement that, according to the Quieter Home Program’s website, “limits the homeowner’s ability to initiate legal action against the Airport Authority for aircraft noise-related issues.”

This, according to Peninsula Planning Board member Suhail Khalil, poses major problems.

“[The] San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s avigation easement allows the airport to add as much noise as they want,” he says. “The easement is in perpetuity, meaning that it will transfer to the next owners indefinitely. This is something property owners under the departure or arrival flight paths must look into very closely before signing. The Federal Aviation Administration does not require property owners under flight paths to sign avigation easements in order to take part in the Quieter Home Programs; the Quieter Home Program earmarks funds available to property owners to retrofit windows and doors to comply with soundproof standards. The only reason the Airport Authority may have for requiring property owners to sign avigation easements before granting funds for the Quieter Home Program is if the flight paths or noise levels eventually may change.”

Avigation easements, according to Murphy, are also required for those applying for building permits within a certain area of the flight path — even for remodeling a kitchen.

Some, however, didn’t mind them either way.

“We don’t own the air over our house,” Wilder explains. “We signed [that] away because new windows and new doors were a lot more valuable than airplane noise. Air conditioning, heating, everything. Insulation.”

He pauses.

“So that’s that,” he says.

Others, Wilder backtracks, were less happy about it than he was.

“Some people did not want to do that,” he says. “Some people had already installed new windows and doors, and they didn’t need that, they just wanted the airport to keep their agreement to limit the noise. And they didn’t. They brought in FedEx — FedEx is loud — they brought in their cargo carrier–type planes, and then there are some big passenger planes.”

There are also those living in the flight path who do not have the luxury of the Quieter Home Program retrofittings or anything else. Bahar, who lives in a building with well over the six to ten dwelling units the program denotes as a cutoff, is sure her apartment has not been safeguarded against noise.

“There’s nothing like that,” she says. “Oh, my gosh, it is so loud. The walls shake!” — Rosa Jurjevics

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from around the web

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader