New FAA e-mails show air traffic controllers, pilots and even FAA officials were more concerned about safety issues surrounding bright lights at Levi’s and Avaya sports stadiums than previously acknowledged.
As first reported by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit in 2015, the bright lights have blinded pilots on final approach to land at San Jose Mineta International Airport.
NBC Bay Area’s investigation showed Levi’s Stadium’s high-intensity lights and building-sized scoreboard were blinding and distracting pilots flying nearby. And just a few miles away, Avaya Stadium’s two-sided electronic scoreboard/advertising billboard blinded and distracted pilots while taxiing on taxiway Y and turning onto ramps C and B to the runway.
Now, according to more than 100 internal FAA e-mails obtained under the Federal Freedom of Information Act, those concerns have been taken to a higher level. According to the e-mails, nearly 50 different pilots have complained about the safety issues associated with the lights at both stadiums.
“This was not well thought out, and is a huge safety problem,” said one commercial pilot who summed up his frustrations in an anonymous report filed through NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System.
The new complaint numbers show the FAA publicly downplayed the issue last fall when they released a statement saying only “a few” pilots had complained.
According to internal emails, 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.
NBC Bay Area’s 11-month investigation, based on both the emails and FAA internal reports, uncovered at least 42 separate pilot complaints regarding the lights and scoreboard at Levi’s Stadium alone. That’s more than six times the number of complaints NBC Bay Area was aware of when the Investigative Unit first broke this story in September 2015.
The FAA remains tight-lipped about the situation, refusing to state how many complaints they’ve received in total. An FAA spokesman has also declined multiple interview requests from NBC Bay Area.
The agency did provide a statement, which reads in part:
“The FAA has the authority to review proposed construction to determine if structures could pose hazards to aircraft or interfere with navigation aids. The agency’s review authority does not include stadium lights or scoreboards. The FAA has a good working relationship with Levi’s Stadium officials, who have been very responsive to any lighting concerns we have raised.”
The e-mails tell a more comprehensive story about these safety issues, detailing concerns about the stadium lights from within the FAA and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. The records show factions within the FAA were pushing the agency to take more aggressive action.
In one e-mail, the director of safety and technology for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association was blunt in his assessment of 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.”
A source intimately familiar with the stadium light issues through their work in aviation safety at San Jose's airport told NBC Bay Area that these problems have not gone away. The source asked to remain anonymous because of fears of retaliation.
“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.”
As noted, it’s not just the scoreboard at Levi’s Stadium that’s creating problems for pilots. The FAA’s internal e-mails also show a separate but related issue associated with the Avaya Stadium electronic scoreboard/billboard to be much worse than originally thought.
Records obtained by the Investigative Unit show at least seven complaints regarding blinding and distracting lights from Avaya Stadium’s scoreboard, which is located directly across Coleman Avenue from the airport. Three of those complaints were filed with the FAA as recently as January 2016.
In one e-mail, the FAA tower manager at SJC even threatened officials at Avaya in January to have the stadium’s lights turned off if she got future complaints.
“It is imperative that we find a better solution to this media board during dark hours,” she wrote in an email to the soccer team’s management. “Here are more complaints from last night at the airport. The next time that I receive these reports I will be contacting the airport and asking for their assistance in having this board turned off or call your stadium contact directly, regardless of the time of night.”
The San Jose Earthquakes, who play at Avaya Stadium, also declined interview requests for this story, but issued the following statement:
“Since the opening of Avaya Stadium, we have worked closely with the airport on a variety of topics. We have responded quickly to all inquiries about our video display and we look forward to continuing our positive relationship with the airport.”
Within the records obtained by NBC Bay Area regarding the lights at Levi’s Stadium were two emails showing the FAA suspected the 49ers of duping the agency during an early test of the intensity and brightness of the lights.
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.
An SJC air traffic controller also had suspicions.
“So it looks like we got “sand bagged” on the stadium light test that was recently conducted by the FAA,” the controller wrote in an August 2014 email. “The August 2nd night game, at Levi’s Stadium, appeared to be much brighter than was the case during the flight check. This was not unexpected.”
The San Francisco 49ers declined interview requests for this story, but issued a statement addressing this issue.
“We are not aware of any FAA flight tests that took place in 2014...The only dimming of our videoboards we have done was in early 2014 at the request of the FAA in conjunction with our initial testing and calibration. As an example of our cooperation with the FAA, we invited one of their safety representatives to be on-site March 2015 for WWE’s testing of lighting and fireworks for WrestleMania 31 and the event itself. We received no negative feedback from the FAA related to that event or any others since opening the building in 2014.
Yet FAA records contradict some of these assertions. That WrestleMania (WWE) event which the 49ers say went smoothly - actually sent a pilot to a doctor to have his eyes checked. According to FAA records, the pilot reported he was forced to stare into the bright lights coming from the wrestling extravaganza while landing at SJC.
As NBC Bay Area first reported in September, 2015, co-pilot Christina Kurowicki, was in the cockpit and was blinded too. Although Kurowicki no longer wishes to discuss the incident publicly, the veteran pilot told NBC Bay Area back in September 2015, “It was blinding. I was the one who was flying and I was kind of looking at the runway and noticing there were these beams of light coming in We just knew that we were getting beams of light in our eyes.”
When asked how bad the lights really were, Kurowicki was unequivocal: “Bad enough that I couldn’t look outside and see the runway very clearly,” Kurowicki said. “It was blinding. It was blinding. The captain that I flew with actually went to the doctor the next day because he was the one who was looking outside the most to help me.”
Records filed with the FAA and obtained by NBC Bay Area show Kurowicki and her co-pilot filed a formal complaint about the incident. And despite claiming they didn’t know about this incident in its first statement to NBC Bay Area in September 2015, the e-mails show that on March 30, 2015 the FAA Tower Manger did know about the incident and referred to it directly.
“No follow-up information of the status of the pilot from [redacted] flight operations," she wrote in the email. "Last I heard on Friday was the pilots would be out of work for a week or two.”
In addition to that incident, four additional pilots filed complaints after flying nearby in November 2014, months after the stadium opened in July.
“Is anyone reaching out to the 49ers to express our concerns about the events that occurred last night?” FAA Public Affairs Manager Ian Gregor wrote in an email to SJC’s tower manager after that incident.
It’s not easy to determine how many complaints have been filed by pilots about Levi’s Stadium because the FAA won’t publicly say and the complaints aren’t captured in a single database. The complaints are scattered across a number of sources, including internal emails, reported through NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System or filed as FAA Mandatory Occurrence Reports.
It’s unclear if the records obtained via the Freedom of Information Act reflect every report filed by pilots, or if some are missing. NBC Bay Area recently filed several additional FOIA requests with the FAA after learning about other possible reporting mechanisms for pilots, but those records have not yet been provided.
What’s clear is this: The number of complaints filed by pilots or the FAA about Levi’s Stadium and Avaya Stadium is significantly higher than first reported last year in NBC Bay Area’s November story.
In addition to pilots who spoke to NBC Bay Area about the stadium lights, that story was based on five complaints filed through NASA and one additional complaint filed as a laser beam exposure incident.
However, newly obtained FAA records show at least 41 pilots have complained about the Levi’s Stadium lights and scoreboard between May 2014 and May 2015.
According to one e-mail dated July 15, 2014, the FAA Tower manager noted that, “we have begun to track and record reports from pilots (about the lighting safety issue.)”
One 2014 email shows a single test of the scoreboard before the stadium opened caused 25 separate pilots to file complaints.
“Sean Bremmer with the stadium wants to coordinate a High intensity light test,” the email stated. “BACKGROUND: they were told that after they did this last time that they need to coordinate in advance and agreed to do this after the Tower closed; this was the test that raised more concerns previously and triggered 25 complaints from pilots.”
A statement provided by the FAA last fall said the agency was unaware of any pilot complaints since 2014. Yet in March 2015, Kurowicki and her co-pilot were blinded flying over the WrestleMania event.
And just one month later, in April 2015, emails show the FAA consulted with an attorney to determine if any criminal charges could potentially be filed against stadium operators for light incidents under a law designed to prevent lasers being aimed at aircraft. A later email shows they couldn’t because the law only applies to lasers, not other sources of bright light.
In a written statement, the 49ers said they had no knowledge of those FAA discussions.
Then in May 2015, the SJC tower manager also sent an email complaining about the strobe lights from a Levi’s Stadium Kenny Chesney concert, which she said could have been directly in the flight path of incoming air traffic.
“We did however get reports of the stadium strobe lights being at least 2000 feet into the air,” she reported. “Had we been operating from the other runway end or this was on any other night than Saturday, this could have been a large concern to arriving traffic.”
City Officials Unaware of Problems
According to Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor, she was unaware of these problems until she saw NBC Bay Area’s September investigation while cooking dinner.
“When I first saw the news story, I was a little surprised that it was an issue because I was not aware of it at all,” Gillmor said.
Gillmor said the city hasn’t received any direct complaints and has not been briefed on any issues by the 49ers or the FAA since the team was initially calibrating the scoreboard.
“Back in 2014, it’s my understanding the lights were calibrated, there was an issue, and we thought it was taken care of,” Gillmor said. “We were told that it would have been taken care of. We always want to know what’s happening. It’s a publicly owned facility and we want to make sure that it’s always safe and it’s always maintained and professionally managed.”
Gillmor said she would expect the stadium management company to work with the FAA if there were any issues.
“It’s really important to us,” Gillmor said. “Especially a publicly owned facility. That is the key. So if there’s an issue, we want to know about it so that we can take care of it.”