The FAA, Levi Stadium’s Lights and Safety/Efficiency at SJC— Congress fix Part 77

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NBC Bay Area’s Investigation Unit has developed a story that shows that Levi’s Stadium’s high-intensity lights and building-sized scoreboard were blinding and distracting pilots on approach and departure to Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC). That’s a problem which the FAA should have addressed BEFORE the stadium was built. 

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On July 17, 2014 the Santa Clara Stadium Authority opened its $2B Levi Stadium. As an 176’ high structure less than three miles from the end of SJC’s runways 12/30 L and R, it qualified for filing under 14 CFR § 77.9. As such the proposed building’s impact on the nearby airport must have been subjected to an Obstruction Evaluation under 14 CFR § 77.29. While the structure, and not the lights on the building to be constructed, is the subject of the OE, the impact on the safety and efficiency of this added building is a matter within the FAA’s jurisdiction.

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It is incumbent on the Part 77 applicant to demonstrate that air safety and efficiency will not be significantly decreased.

 

The Investigation Unit, based on its review of hundreds of internal FAA correspondence (released under FOIA), asserts that “some inside the FAA believe the agency did not act aggressively enough to mitigate potential safety risks and even suspect the agency was possibly duped by the 49ers during early testing of the lights’ effects on pilots.

 

The airspace in that section of the South Bay is quite congested in terms of traffic and is further complicated by the close proximity of three airports (SFO, SJC and OAK). As a result of the Levi Stadium high mounted lights, the notes for flying at SJC include the following explicit warning:

 

“HIGH INTENSITY LIGHT ACTIVITY: HIGH INTENSITY LIGHTS (LASERS AND LARGE MEDIA SCREENS) MAY BE VISIBLE TO ARR AND DEP ACFT

TO SAN JOSE INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT DURING EVENTS AT THE LEVI STADIUM COMPLEX (37-24-15N/121-58-14W, SJC VORTAC

R-303/2.1 DME). FLIGHT CREWS SHOULD USE CAUTION WHEN OPERATING IN THIS AREA DURING STADIUM EVENTS. COCKPIT ILLUMINATION AND GLARE EFFECT REDUCING VIS MAY BE INTENSIFIED DURING ARR AND DEP OPS ESPECIALLY AT NIGHT.”

[emphasis added]

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Now well after the FAA issuance of a “No Hazard” determination (i.e. that the risk posed by the stadium is acceptable, its public affairs office issued this statement

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Here are some of the most telling quotes from the attached story:

 

  • “In one e-mail, the director of safety and technology for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association was blunt in his assessmentof the FAA’s response to their concerns in an email to the agency before the stadium officially opened.

‘Today I was a little taken aback when you told me even the stadium operators agreed the lights from the JumboTron were really bright, but nothing is going to be done to avoid a possible or maybe even probable situation starting with the first event at the stadium on August 2nd,’ Dale Wright wrote. ‘The ‘let’s wait and see’ what happens approach is not one that NATCA prefers.’”

 

  • “’That scoreboard emits so much light that [pilots] can see that as much as a hundred miles away from the airport,’ the aviation safety source said. ‘We had pilots on final when they were testing the lights when that stadium was first built saying, ‘hey, what is that we can see just north of the airport?’ And we’d tell them it was the new stadium and they’d say, ‘well, we’ve been watching that scoreboard for a hundred miles.’”
  • “In July 2014, after receiving multiple pilot complaints concerning the lights and scoreboard, the FAA decided to perform its own test flight over the stadium to see just how bright those lights were. According to FAA emails, the agency coordinated the test with the 49ers, who were supposed to simulate game day conditions with the lights and scoreboards on full intensity.

  But later emails show the FAA suspected the 49ers didn’t live up to their end of the bargain.

 

 ‘Though we don’t have any hard evidence, we believe when we flight checked the lights and Jumbo-Tron, the stadium had the Tron on its lowest setting,’ said FAA official Brian Durham in a September 2014 email.”

 

These incidents have been substantiated by submissions under NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System or filed as FAA Mandatory Occurrence Reports. As such, these complaints should have been carefully reviewed, some solution agreed to and implemented. The problems with the lights at Levi Stadium persist, however.

 

Why the seeming reluctance by the FAA to act or react to this hazard?

 

First, the FAA does not have the statutory power to prevent the introduction of any intrusion to the airspace. Fortunately, many (if not most) states, cities and zoning/building commissions recognize the FAA’s Part 77 findings as binding and deny permission to build. The federal agency’s inability to really protect airspace is “cured” by the wisdom of local rules. Occasionally, a local politician, driven by jobs or economic development, will ignore a Part 77 determination. Such poor priorities (money over safety) may be reversed by insurance companies. The loss profile, occasioned by such an obstruction, frequently results in refusal to write the policy.

 

Obviously, the OE did not determine a hazard and after the stadium is built the FAA has no power to compel that some remedial action be taken. As previously noted, instances such as the SJC/Levi Stadium light problem raise the following substantial and vexing issues which Congress must consider (maybe FAA Reauthorization bill would be a good, but late vehicle for statutory revision?):

 

  • Does it make sense for the FAA to get statutory authority to prevent the construction of a hazard?
  • Is it appropriate to rely on state and local commissions to deny permission based on the FAA’s determinations?
  • Keep in mind, filing of a request for an aeronautical study is not mandatory; there is no power to force a builder/developer to submit the required information.
  • If a change must be mandated after construction (like Levi-SJC), who should pay for the remedial action costs?

 

The sports facility’s lights may blind their night vision and that is not a good thing to have happen on the way to San Jose.  It would be good for this Congress to answer these questions in their current review of the FAA’s authority – safety and efficiency of the National Airspace System would benefiy.

 

ARTICLE: Safety Concerns About Levi’s Stadium Lights Worse than Previously Thought, FAA E-Mails Show

Records show some within the FAA suspected the 49ers of duping the agency on a safety flight test

 

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