Peace and quiet at San Diego International Airport: Soundproofing in practice

Aircraft abovehouses in SANEver since the Wright brothers took off from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina more than a century ago, in a contraption built of bailing wire and bicycle parts, airplanes have been turning heads, and making noise. Modern aircraft contribute to this more than ever before. As anyone who lives under the a departure pattern can tell you, take offs have a way of blotting out large chucks of telephone conversations and TV programs, especially during warmer weather, when windows are open.

That’s where at San Diego County’s Airport Authority’s the Quieter Home Program (QHP) steps in. Begun in 2001, the program uses grant funding provided through the Federal Aviation Authority’s Part 150 Noise Compatibility Study. These moneys are generated from user fees paid by airlines and the traveling public.

Since the program began, 1,600 homes have been upgraded to mitigate aircraft noise. But about 9,000 homes are still on the waiting list. My own residence at the Point Loma Tennis Club falls into this still “to do” category. At projected current upgrade progress, the program could continue for another 20 years, or even longer.

In 2008 the QHP availed itself of $25 million in such grants, some of which were encumbered and carried over from previous years. Normally it’s $10 to $12 million a year which pays for the soundproofing of 300 to 600 homes, depending on their size and complexity. Historic homes from the turn of the last century to the 1920’s and 30’s, are much more complex and challenging to update, than modern homes.

Ms Knack (in blue)Heading these efforts, is Sjohnna M. Knack (in photo in blue). A soft spoken, sincere and engaging program director with a degree in aviation management. Prior to this project she worked as Systems Manager at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and before that, she was the noise-abatement coordinator for the Washoe County Airport Authority in Reno. She has been with the QHP for 3,5 years, and heads a staff of 20 friendly administrative employees. In addition some 50-60 technical consulting staff are available as private contractors.

Knack enjoys positively impacting those who benefit from the QHP, improving the quality of their lives by facilitating things most of us take for granted – a more restful sleep, and telephone conversations uninterrupted by jet noise.

Noise abatement measures
There are basically four ways in which aircraft noise can be controlled and mitigated. These include (1) land acquisition and land use zoning around airports, (2) improving aircraft frame and engine designs, (3) limiting airport hours of operations, and controlling flight patterns and engine power settings during takeoffs, and (4) modifying and soundproofing existing structures.

This last approach is where the QHP excels. Knack is mandate by the FAA to soundproof residence, schools which were given first priority, places of worship, and noise sensitive businesses, such as day care centers , that are situated within the airport’s noise contour of 65 decibels (dB(A)) or higher. Currently Knack’s team is working on reducing interior noise levels in the 67 and 66 dB(A) contour range.

Typical soundproofing measures include, among others, sliding acoustic windows, solid core doors, attic insulation, exterior heat pumps, air conditioning and ventilation.

The FAA measurement standard for a successful noise abatement retrofit, is to reduce interior noise levels by 5 dB, which mathematically equals over 60% decrease in outside environmental noise. That is significant and noticeable. It also results in a much quieter living space.

Aircraft produce the greatest amount of engine noise on departure, when they are climbing and need higher power settings for operational safety. Noise coming from an aircraft depends on type of equipment and distance or altitude. For example, a DC-9 at one mile high produces 90 dB of sound. In comparison, car alarms cab reach levels up to 102 dB. In this respect the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cautions against unprotected noise of 85 decibels, slightly less than a gasoline powered lawn mower, for longer than eight hours a day.

Contours SAN airportWhile the FAA is concerned with aircraft noise complaints, Sjohnna Knack highlights that the QHP objective is to comply with Title 21 of California’s State Noise Ordinance, by proving to the State that businesses and residences within flight traffic patterns meet 65 dB contour compatibility. This is a legal way of saying that people inside these structures are able to carry on normal conversations, without substantial hindrance of aircraft noise. This proof of compliance comes in the form of Avigation Easements, documents that property owners sign relinquishing their rights to sue over noise issues. These are filed with the County Clerk’s office after soundproofing has been completed.

If an airport cannot meet the State noise ordinance requirements, it can apply for a Noise Variance from the State, or it can acquire land under the airport’s flight patterns, and remove such property from residential or commercial zoning. Even in the depressed Southern California real estate market, buying such properties are not feasible. Getting a Noise Variance is cumbersome, and requires a formal application and public hearing before an administrative law judge. So the best approach is what the QHP is already doing, making homes quieter.

Rate of success?
Is Sjohnna Knack successful at her task? Yes, she is. According to Ms. Knack the program reached a rate of 98% satisfaction. This was validated by a post construction questionnaire, which was given to every homeowner, along with their warranty package. She further states that the goal is to build on this reputation, by doing excellent work, being open and transparent, answering all homeowners questions, using the latest new technologies, high quality materials and the most competent contractors.

However, not everyone goes along with the program. In fact, the opt-out rate is between 5-10%. Some homeowners just don’t want to be bothered with having a parade of workers disrupt their lives. For many, the deal breaker is that the new high-tech materials used in the program, like vinyl framed windows, do not fit the character of high value, up market older homes.

San Diego AirportSome homeowners have expressed concerns that signing the required Avigation Easement will give the San Diego Regional Airport Authority a blank check to operate flights at all hours of the day or night, and permit noisier equipment. But this is rebutted by the airport. According to an airport spokesperson, San Diego International Airport plans on keeping its 11:30 pm to 6:30 am curfew intact for departing traffic. Arriving flights have always been allowed to land 24 hours a day, because engine power is reduced when an aircraft lands, and there is much less noise generated.

As for me, after many hours of research by the QHP and interviews, I still had my own affairs to complete. Reviewing and signing off on the design elements for retrofitting my house. People from the Program met with me and patiently went over all the details and notes that were contained in a stack of documents, and demonstrated my new sliding acoustic windows. One of the programs engineers answered all my questions about replacing filters for my home’s climate control system, including costs, frequency and the availability of these filters. He even looked up the decibel ratings of the new equipment that will be installed. So, I now can get more peace and quiet from San Diego International Airport than ever before.

Joel Siegfried from San Diego, USAAbout the Author
Joel Siegfried is freelance journalist and is currently in the design phase of having his condominium upgraded by the QHP. He holds a Masters degree from St. John’s University (New York) in Information Sciences. To contact Joel Siegfried, please mail to


Memories from September 11, 2001 – Sleepwalking at San Diego Airport

Feature_9-11_awtc_webThis week, to recall and honor the memories of all those that perished on 9/11, I want to share memories, salvaged from my own notes and emails that were written eight years ago. Come with me back in time now, and I will tell you what I remember.

The weekend had flown by, literally. Later it would seem like a blur, an idyllic series of events in the calm before a great storm. Just that weekend I had flown several times to visit friends in Seattle on Friday and on Sunday to San Jose, where I enjoyed a music and wine festival. It was an Indian Summer golden day, which is etched forever in memory.

By Monday, a bad cold was working overtime to try and ruin a weeklong trip to Austin that would begin the next day. It would lose out to a much more sinister force. I returned to San Diego on Monday, repacked my bag, slept poorly, and got up very early on Tuesday morning to make a 6:30 a.m. flight to Dallas, which would connect to my destination.

Tuesday was September 11, 2001. I was seated aboard an American Airlines flight at San Diego International Airport, bone weary but happy. Looking out from my exit row seat, I could see that the 6:00 a.m. departure from gate 29 had not moved. I began to fret about missing my connecting flight in Dallas, when a crew member announced that there was a 2-hour air traffic control hold across the United States. I had never heard of such a thing. The weather was aviation-wise near perfect all across the continent. A flight attendant was nearby. As if in a dream, I heard myself asking, “Are we on hold because of the President’s plane, Air Force One?”

Feature_9-11_WTC_remnant_highres_webShe looked at me in my battered cowboy hat, the one that I always wear for good luck whenever I travel. She hesitated, as if trying to judge if I were a “good” cowboy or a desperado. Finally, in a soft voice she said, “No, the President is safe.”

Any icy chill shot down my spine. I took a gulp of air, and just raised my eyebrows. I think that made her decide to share a terrible secret. “Do you know,” she began, “that a plane has hit the World Trade Center in New York?”

“A light plane?”, I whispered. But I already sensed the answer. “No, it was one of our planes, like this one.” She asked where I was from, and I pointed out the window.

“You’re lucky, because we’re not going to go anywhere today.”

Feature_9-11_aa063-flag-posters_webIt was true. An American Airlines Boeing 767 had plowed into the north side of the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York, soon to be followed by a United Airlines flight which crashed into the South Tower, an event seen live on television. Two other commercial flights, American 77, and United 93, were to also meet tragic ends that morning. Leaving my grounded aircraft, I reemerged into a surreal scene in the San Diego Airport’s Terminal 2. All of the overhead lights were off, contrasting with flickering TV monitors, tuned to CNN, and showing in endless repetition, those two planes crashing into the World Trade Center again and again. People stood there in silence, jaws agape, staring like ghosts at those unfathomable scenes. I saw a flight attendant weeping as she walked past me. There were no sounds. It was as if someone had pulled a plug on our ears, or we had become actors in a silent movie.

I left the airport, eventually found a taxi, and rode home with troubled thoughts. Once there, with the TV muted, I crawled into bed. Before falling asleep I promised myself that I would visit the crater at Ground Zero in New York City. I simply didn’t know what else to do.

Joel Siegfried from San Diego, USAAbout the Author
Joel Siegfried writes feature articles for serveral web sites, among others and Aerlines Magazine, as their San Diego Airport Examiner. This story is one of several he has written recalling the events of September 11. To contact Joel Siegfried, please email to

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