This article is a result of a partnership between SoCal Connected and Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
LOS ANGELES — The way Christine Kim pictured it when her family moved to Sherman Oaks about five years ago, she’d spend Saturdays relaxing on her patio, in her expansive backyard filled with lush plants and an in-ground pool. The tidy wooden fence surrounding the garden would keep the world beyond her home at bay, she thought.
In fall 2018, a nuisance began creeping in from above.
Kim noticed airplanes were increasingly flying over her quaint neighborhood. Since then, she says her day-to-day life has been interrupted by the constant loud whirr of plane engines on their way from Burbank Airport.
Despite the quiet, suburban demeanor of Sherman Oaks, a vocal community of concerned residents, led in part by Kim, have made quite a bit of noise in the past year over changes to flight path and regulation at the Hollywood Burbank Airport.
Although the airport is located almost ten miles away from Sherman Oaks, residents say the neighborhood was harmed after changes were enacted in early 2017 by the Federal Aviation Administration in an effort to increase the efficiency of aircraft procedures.
“You sort of have to have a reasonable expectation when you live six to ten miles from an airport or farther that you’re not buying a house next to an airport,” Kim said. “Basically what the FAA did—with the airports tacit consent and not fighting back— is they’ve moved the runways to us.”
Noise and air pollution, decreased quality of life, and the constant eyesore of the planes have plagued residents in Sherman Oaks, according to Kim. Residents allege they have developed health issues including, heart palpitations, irritable bowel syndrome, hand tremors, depression and anxiety, and trouble with concentration.
As an attorney and a realtor, Kim’s concerns extend to the potential loss of property values, and she is the co-founder of Sherman Oaks & Encino for Quiet Skies, a group of local advocates.
The Southern California Metroplex Project was enacted by the FAA in 2017 to “[optimize] aircraft arrival and departure procedures at a number of airports.” The main item of contention is NextGen, the flight program that’s contributed to the airport’s efficiency. At Burbank, aircraft carrier operations increased by 22.4% from 2016 to 2018.
NextGen or NextGeneration, implemented as part of the SoCal Metroplex Project, aims to bring about the modernization of America's air transportation system. New satellite-based precision routes and GPS technologies have allowed for increased efficiency in departures and landings.
Concerned residents, like Kim, determined that the FAA’s change in flight paths expanded south into their areas.
The FAA has denied claims of drastic changes in departure paths, and spokesman Ian Gregor wrote in an email that he believes that “there has been a lot of misinformation disseminated about what changes the FAA has made” throughout this several months long process.
“The departure flight paths have NOT been narrowed over communities southwest of the airport,” Gregor wrote.
According to the project plans, the flight path changes made at Burbank occur to the north and northwest areas of the airport. There have also been no changes made to the departure procedures at that runway Gregor claimed.
Beyond Sherman Oaks, residents in other parts of the San Fernando Valley, the Santa Monica Mountains, Bel-Air and Beverly Hills say the large amount of plane noise is new, and constant.
One of the many claims against federal regulators is that the change in flight paths has resulted in a new concentration of flights going farther south than the FAA says they should.
At the sixth Burbank Noise Task Force meeting on Feb. 19, one long-time resident of Studio City said, if action isn’t taken, the FAA’s 2017 changes to the flight path were only going to get narrower, and worse for locals who live near them.
“No matter when you pull into your driveway, there’s an airplane over your head,” Sherri Elkaim said. “You go to the grocery store for a moment of reprieve or something and you come home and there’s an airplane over your head.”
Due to the increase of complaints, the airport assembled the task force to gather public input and compile a list of recommendations about how these flight paths could be changed or regulated to give to federal aviation officials for consideration.
On a recent afternoon, laptop in hand, Kim discussed the maddening toll the frequent noise had on her life—pausing mid-sentence when planes passed overhead to note excessive volume before immediately filing a noise complaint with an app that reports these complaints to the Burbank airport authority. The app provides a text to users with details such as flight number and elevation—details Kim has fastidiously recorded to develop presentations for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, which is suing on behalf of many local residents who want former flight paths to be reinstated.
Kim has taken to the streets to capture the growing amount of noise pollution. In the interview, she brought out a speaker to play sounds that she had collected of planes flying throughout these communities. With her musician husband’s recording equipment, Kim spent a morning recording the plane noises on her patio.
As she played her recordings, Kim said “Imagine you’re sitting outside on a Saturday morning and this is what you get treated to.”
In December, the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office filed a lawsuit against the FAA for allowing flights to take departure routes over areas that have previously not experienced any kind of heavy flight traffic.
The FAA declined to comment on the litigation.
The city’s lawsuit against the FAA is not the first of its kind. Locals often point to the city of Phoenix as an example, since the city won a lawsuit against the FAA in 2017.
The FAA attempted to implement NextGen at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in 2014 without notifying citizens of these changes beforehand and the city filed a lawsuit in retaliation. The city won after the court ruled that the FAA had violated environmental and technical legislation.
And if these new paths become permanent, residents are already financially preparing to sue the FAA, raising more than $200,000 in three months, said Lisa Carloss, another long-time Studio City resident.
“You’re flying a flight path that was never studied, was never announced, never had public scoping, and was never subject to environmental review,” Carloss said. “That’s illegal.”
Despite resident’s claims, Burbank Airport officials say the FAA met the requirements for changing a flight path.
“Since the change wasn’t great, they only had to go by federal standards, they didn’t have to go all the way down to California CEQA standards,” said John Anderson, spokesperson for the Burbank Airport.
In the months before the changes were enacted, the FAA held several public meetings which were posted on their website and social media pages, Anderson said. Because the changes didn’t majorly impact the flight paths, the FAA only needed to comply with federal standards and not California environmental requirements. They completed the necessary outreach and environmental assessment needed for these changes.
The city’s lawsuit claims that the FAA’s initial environmental assessment for the project did not account for the southern shift of flight paths. The review conducted was based on the idea that the change in flight departures would continue to take established routes. In response to the lawsuit, the FAA has conceded that there has been a southern shift of flights according to the city’s petition but the FAA has stated that they are not accountable for these changes.
“[The] FAA's response is contrary to law, fact, and common sense,” the petition stated. “Moreover, [the] FAA's response concedes that it did not consider the impacts of the “southerly shift” as part of the environmental review conducted in 2017.”
The Noise Task Force will meet one last time, April 1, to vote on the recommendations they’ll make to the FAA.
“If any recommendation is a reasonable alternative to the existing proposed amendments to the [departure routes], we could potentially review them as part of the Environmental Analysis we’re conducting,” Gregor wrote in an email.
This process could take awhile and depending on what recommendations are chosen the FAA could implement a solution “overnight” or it could take years with additional environmental review Anderson explained.
“[The airport wants] the FAA to be involved,” Anderson said. “They want the FAA to listen to the community and not just turn a blind eye to them.”