A Bitter Pill To Boost GA
“I hope they shut down the airport and turn it into a toxic waste dump. That’ll really piss off the liberals.” -- Overheard at my local airport diner
This will come as a surprise if you’ve read AOPA’s lobbying materials, but maybe we’re not such awesome neighbors. I teach at San Carlos and Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley. These airports are not significant contributors to the local economy, and they would be totally superfluous for disaster relief. Silicon Valley has plenty of children’s science museums that don’t spew leaded exhaust. The non-flying community would not miss these airports if they were gone. Sorry, but it’s true.
The flying community would miss them very much. Between their two 2500-foot runways, they move over 300,000 operations per year. If you put them together, they’d be the 30th busiest airport in the United States. Busier than Chicago-Midway or BWI. If you think combining them makes for a silly comparison, consider that the distance from Palo Alto to San Carlos is the same as the distance from one side of Denver International to the other.
Let’s talk noise—if you can hear me over the sound of this Cessna taking off. A 1960s-era 737-200 produced about 97 dBA on takeoff. The new, much larger 737-700 makes 80 dBA on takeoff. Remember, decibel is a logarithmic scale, so that’s 100 times quieter. How does GA compare? Your 1970s Cessna 172N had a takeoff noise rating of 75 dBA. Today’s Cessna 172SP produces 78 dBA. A new Cessna is about twice as loud as an old Cessna. I wonder why our neighbors don’t like us.
San Carlos is facing a proposed curfew on “noisy aircraft,” which the county supervisors have defined to mean louder than 74.5 dBA. They’re trying to kill Surf Air, so they picked a noise threshold 0.1 dBA quieter than the quietest PC-12 variant (and please do give them a golf clap for the subtlety of that move). Unfortunately, our flying clubs are caught in the crosshairs, because nothing I fly, except the Citabria, is quieter than 74.5 dBA.
The FAA does regulate light aircraft noise, but the takeoff noise limit has been 85 dBA for more than a decade. If we could get the FAA to require all piston singles aircraft certified after 2020 be quieter than 70 dBA and also get the FAA to preempt noise ordinances affecting these “quiet” aircraft, that would be a good trade for everyone involved. If pilots were leading the push for new regulations, we’d get to set timelines and targets that are reasonable. New regulation won’t be costless, but it’ll be better than waiting for our angry neighbors to force immediate changes or shut down our most popular airports.
Best of all, by being better neighbors, more people might decide they want to be like us. Remember those liberals my fellow diner wanted to piss off? In Northern California, if you piss off all the liberals, your list of potential friends has become mighty short. There are people in my community who could afford to fly, but are turned off by the emissions of noise, carbon and lead. That sounds crazy to most pilots, but pilots are a self-selected group. Pilots fly because they’ve decided they’re OK with our current emissions levels. If GA is going to survive, it’s going to need to accommodate both conservative and liberal value systems. You may not like it, but if we don’t lead the way to the future, I’m not sure there are going to be a lot of general aviation pilots around to see it.