Depending on the prevailing winds at the time, the twin-engine Embraer-175 jetliner takes off either to the west — over the Target store, Camino Real Marketplace and the Ellwood residential area — or to the east in the direction of More Mesa, Hope Ranch and the eastern Goleta Valley.
In either case, soon after becoming airborne, the aircraft, with engines roaring, makes a hard turn out toward the Pacific Ocean while gaining altitude, and heads toward the Rocky Mountains.
These flight patterns are designated under the airport’s voluntary noise-abatement procedures, but they are not always followed precisely by the pilots in command of the aircraft.
On a typical morning, over the next 90 minutes or so after that first Denver flight, at least five more commercial jets take to the skies from Santa Barbara in a similar manner — carrying passengers to Dallas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Other smaller executive jets also head skyward during this period, along with general-aviation planes.
For residents down below, it can be an ear-shattering, window-rattling ordeal — one many of them are increasingly upset about.
Among them is Ray Sawhill, who lives with his wife, Polly, on Austin Road on More Mesa, east of the airport.
An American Airlines jetliner flies over the More Mesa residential area. (Ray Sawhill photo)
They live in the home where Polly grew up, and have put up with airport noise for years.
But they say that over the last few months, the volume of flights — both in numbers and sound — has increased markedly. They also feel as though their complaints about the problem have fallen on deaf ears.
“This morning, by 7:02, four big passenger jets had taken off directly over us,” Sawhill told Noozhawk recently. “That would be bad any morning — but on a Sunday? Didn’t we used to call Sundays a day of rest?”
The overall impact from the airport noise is unbearable, he said.
“It’s like having a Harley motorcycle gang rumbling by your house 36 times per day,” he added.
Also bearing the brunt of airport noise is Yaheya Quazi, a UC Santa Barbara researcher who lives with his wife and 16-year-old daughter in The Hideaway housing development, across from Sandpiper Golf Club on outer Hollister Avenue west of the airport.
“It’s been really bad the last two months,” he said, noting that things were better when air traffic plummeted during the height of the COVID-19 crisis.
“We hear the planes taking off and landing at least 20 times a day,” Quazi said. “That’s a lot.”
The fact that he’s still working at home most of the time due to the ongoing pandemic compounds the problem, he added.
A Long-Standing Issue
Aircraft noise is not a new dilemma in Santa Barbara — airlines have been serving the community for decades, and airplanes are by definition loud machines.
Not surprisingly, that service has always resulted in complaints about aircraft noise, a steady stream that ebbs and flows based on a variety of factors.
But in recent weeks, Noozhawk has received numerous complaints about aircraft noise, and local social-media websites such as NextDoor have been lighting up with airport neighbors complaining and debating about the problem.
The common perception voiced is that there are more flights, aircraft are louder and they are flying lower. There is some truth to these contentions, but they don’t tell the whole story.
Airport officials confirm that the volume of complaints is now at or above what was happening two years ago, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, which severely curtailed commercial air traffic.
“From the standpoint of public engagement on noise, we’re back to where we were in 2019,” Deanna Zachrisson, the airport’s business development manager, told Noozhawk.
Airport director Henry Thompson agreed, but offered an additional perspective.
“The biggest challenge here is these are coming in as noise complaints,” he said. “But in reality, what the community is complaining about is airplanes overflying them. It’s not so much a loud airplane; it’s an airplane flying over my neighborhood.
“It’s further complicated by what I call disinformation spreading in the community about aircraft not flying a required route into the airport. There is no required route into the airport.”
There’s no question that the now-18-month-old coronavirus pandemic brought a break from aircraft traffic and noise.
At the low point, passenger counts were down about 95%, and the number of flights had been trimmed substantially. With diminished passenger counts, airlines also downsized many flights to smaller aircraft, which tend to be quieter.
(Santa Barbara Airport illustration)
Noise complaints, as tracked by the airport, also abated.
Today, there are 23 or 24 scheduled airline departures each day from the airport, beginning with United’s early morning Denver flight and ending with an Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle at 7:20 p.m.
There are corresponding arrivals, ranging from a 9:50 a.m. American Airlines flight from Phoenix to a 10:35 p.m. United flight from Chicago.
At the peak in 2019, Thompson said, the airport had 30 commercial arrivals and departures each day.
Pilots Make the Ultimate Decisions
Commercial aircraft flying into Santa Barbara nearly always approach from over the the ocean before making a hard turn to line up with the 6,000-foot main runway, which runs east-west.
When that runway is operating east to west, which it does about 80% of the time, those turns are occurring somewhere between Hope Ranch and More Mesa, which is just to the east of Goleta Beach.
Under the airport’s voluntary noise-abatement procedures, pilots are requested to make their inbound and outbound turns over the undeveloped open space on More Mesa, rather than over adjacent residential neighborhoods.
This map shows the voluntary noise-abatement flight path at the Santa Barbara airport for aircraft arriving from the east and using the main runway. The area outlined in green is the More Mesa open space. (Ray Sawhill photo)
But the key word here is “voluntary.”
“There is a preferred approach for pilots to take into the airport if they are able to fly it safely,” Thompson said. “But just like the name says, it’s voluntary.”
Neither the airport nor the Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to mandate where pilots fly.
“Airlines operate in a manner deemed safe by the pilot in command,” said Aaron Keller, the airport’s operations manager.
Put another way, it is entirely up to the pilot to decide — based on a variety of factors, most notably safety — what route he or she is going to follow on takeoff or landing.
All this is covered by the Airport Noise and Capacity Act, or ANCA, which was implemented by the FAA in 1990.
As explicitly outlined in the act, the FAA prohibits airports from imposing limitations or violations, including curfews, on any aircraft, aircraft operator or airline. The Santa Barbara Airport is open 24/7 for commercial and general aviation use, as required by the FAA.
“A pilot may choose to not accept the voluntary approach due to a number of factors that deem the voluntary approach unsafe,” according to a noise report issued by the airport in May.
“These include weather conditions, high aircraft altitude, aircraft speed, position when cleared by air traffic to turn inbound, pilot training or proficiency on the approach, cabin readiness, emergencies of inbound aircraft, or air traffic separation needed.”
A Southwest Airlines 737 comes in over the More Mesa open space for a landing at the Santa Barbara Airport. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)
From the pilot’s perspective, there may be another, safety-related issue with the landing approach from the east.
According to Keller, the industry standard for landing a jetliner is to line up with the main runway on final approach 3-5 miles out. However, the designated noise-abatement route over the More Mesa open space means that final approach is occurring only 2¼ miles out.
Complicating that maneuver is the airport’s relatively short runway — just over a mile compared to some 11,000 feet at an airport such as LAX.
The bottom line is that the decision on where to fly ultimately lies with the pilot, including whether to follow noise-abatement flight paths.
Advising and Educating Airlines
Thompson and other airport officials contend that they work consistently with pilots and airlines to advise and educate them on adopted noise-abatement procedures, which have been designed to reduce the impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.
Some airlines, Thompson noted, are more receptive than others, though he would not name names.
“At one time we did have more aircraft that were flying this voluntary noise-abatement approach,” he acknowledged, adding that adherence has declined.
(Santa Barbara Airport illustration)
“We’ve had some of our airlines flight standards folks who have flown this route into Santa Barbara who do not believe it’s a safe approach to fly every single time. The airlines are not going to mandate the routes.”
The airport also has a system that the public can use to track offending flights and make noise complaints, one that has been getting quite a workout lately.
For example, the airport logged 536 noise complaints in May 2019, which was a record year for passenger counts at the airport, according to Zachrisson.
By May 2020, as the pandemic was taking hold and air traffic was cratering, that number had dropped to 176 complaints.
This year, however, the complaints in May jumped back up to 564.
At a recent Airport Commission meeting, Keller estimated that about 75% of flights follow the voluntary noise-abatement procedures.
However, residents argue that the actual number is lower, and there appears to be a lot variability in routes, even when the planes fly over some portion of the open space. If the planes cross near the eastern or western edge of the open space, they still are fairly close to residences.
Airport officials say a letter typically is issued to the operator of an aircraft that does not follow the procedures. Thompson added that the airport has begun monitoring flight paths more aggressively in an attempt to be more proactive.
According to information provided by the airport, during a seven-month period in 2019, 38% of the letters involved complaints originating in Hope Ranch, with 31.3% from the More Mesa area and 18.3% from neighborhoods south of Hollister Avenue.
How the Noise Advisory Program Works
There also is an automated noise advisory telephone hotline for registering complaints: 805.967.1900.
The airport reports receiving about 1,400 noise complaints per month, with the majority involving aircraft that have followed the noise-abatement procedures.
“We’re happy to look at each and every complaint,” Zachrisson said.
A United Airlines jetliner lands at the Santa Barbara Airport. Officials say the airport receives more complaints about aircraft landings than about takeoffs. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)
“Many noise complaints are received from locations directly under the established flightpath of the voluntary noise-abatement approach for Runway 25 (the main east-west runway),” according to the airport’s website.
“For flights landing at SBA that are determined to have not flown a voluntary noise-abatement approach, excluding flight tracks flown for safety or spacing requirements, education is provided to the aircraft operator for future use.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the airport receives more complaints about aircraft landings than takeoffs, according to Zachrisson.
Keller explained that likely is because planes are on a gentler glide slope — and therefore lower — when landing than they are when taking off and rapidly gaining altitude.
But Thompson flatly rejected the idea that planes are flying lower than they used to, noting that they follow pre-determined glide slopes that have not changed.
“We’ve gotten reports that an aircraft is flying low, at 200 feet, over Hope Ranch,” he said. “That can’t happen because they couldn’t make it to the airport.”
Airport officials say aircraft may also appear to be lower simply because they are larger than the planes that previously were more common.
An additional beef voiced to Noozhawk by More Mesa resident Sawhill and others is that no one ever responds to their complaints. Thompson is matter-of-fact in his response.
“One of things we don’t do is call back on every complaint,” he said. “There’s no way we could do that.”
Reasons for More Aircraft Noise
There are several factors contributing to the increase in aircraft noise around the Santa Barbara Airport.
A Southwest Airlines jetliner flies near the More Mesa residential area. Southwest began serving the Santa Barbara Airport in May, with five daily flights. (Ray Sawhill photo)
As previously noted, the flight volume has jumped considerably over the last year, and now exceeds what it was in 2019.
Airlines have added back flights that were dropped at the height of the pandemic. New routes have been added by existing airlines — to Chicago and San Diego — and frequencies have increased to some destinations.
Additionally, Southwest Airlines entered the market in May with five flights daily — serving Oakland, Las Vegas and Denver.
The airlines also have moved to larger aircraft to accommodate growing passenger counts.
The largest commercial jetliners serving the local airport are the Boeing 737s that Southwest flies exclusively.
A Southwest Airlines 737 crosses Fairview Avenue on its way to landing at the Santa Barbara Airport. (Mike Eliason photo)
“The 737 is a heavier aircraft and carries more people,” Keller noted. “Therefore, the engines must be more powerful.”
Typically, only 4-5 of the daily flights are now on the smaller commuter jets.
Also likely contributing to the problem is a change in control tower procedures dictated by the FAA.
Previously, aircraft were guided in using the voluntary noise abatement approaches, Keller told the commission.
But the FAA, citing liability concerns, has directed control tower personnel to only vector aircraft for reasons of safe operation and aircraft separation.
“By doing a anything more than that, they are putting the FAA in jeopardy of some type of legal liability,” he said.
Moreover, there is no doubt that on a daily basis, there are aircraft that, for whatever reason, don’t follow a route over the More Mesa open space, and instead overfly residential neighborhoods. This can be tracked on the airport’s PublicVue website, as well as by using websites such as FlightRadar24 or FlightAware.
A single-engine Cessna comes in for a landing at the Santa Barbara Airport. Although this plane is landing on the main runway, smaller aircraft typically use the airports two shorter north-south runways. (Tom Bolton / Noozhawk photo)
Taken together, these factors have led to more noise and more complaints.
Airlines Are Not the Only Ones
While the airlines — with their larger aircraft and distinctive liveries — tend to get the most attention, they are not the only ones generating noise complaints at the airport.
There is a small fleet of corporate jets that call Santa Barbara home, and many others regularly fly in and out of the airport. It’s not unusual for there to be 25-30 corporate jet arrivals and departures on any given day.
These aircraft, though much smaller than commercial jetliners, generally use the airport’s main runway, and are asked to follow the same voluntary noise-abatement procedures as the airlines.
There also are dozens of takeoffs and landings each day by smaller general-aviation aircraft, from the ubiquitous Cessna 175s to larger twin-engine planes.
Most of these planes use the airport’s shorter parallel runways — 15 Left and 15 Right — that run north-south roughly from Hollister Avenue to the edge of Goleta Beach.
There is a voluntary noise-abatement program for these runways as well, with pilots asked to fly over Highway 101 while inbound to or outbound from the airport.
These runways nearly always operate north-to-south, with planes taking off heading out over the ocean, while those that are landing make their final turns to line up with the runway over neighborhoods in Goleta, including the Lake Los Carneros area.
What Can Be Done?
Asked about the outlook — in terms of flight volumes and noise complaints — Thompson acknowledged that both can be expected to increase.
“In the future, is it likely there could be more flights,” he said. “We’re not going to see 20 more flights or 10 more flights per day, but we may see an additional two or three.”
That surely is not music to the ears of residents most affected by airport noise, but there is hope for some improvement.
“We’re working with the FAA on what’s called a ‘charted visual approach’ into the airport that will more precisely bring the aircraft in over the open space, using navigational aids,” Thompson said.
That process, which typically takes about 18 months, has been underway for six months, he said, and will take about another year to be completed.
Alaska Airlines reportedly uses something similar — its own proprietary technology — to help its planes follow the voluntary guidelines.
“It’s not a magic bullet,” Thompson said of the charted visual approach, “but it should address the nonadherence to the voluntary noise-abatement plans.”