After a year of declining flights and revenue, a study session scheduled during next Tuesday’s city council meeting will unveil that Long Beach Airport's (LGB) annual noise budget analysis shows it needs to to add nine new flight slots in order for the city to be in compliance with minimum flight allocations mandated in its airport noise ordinance.
The news comes at a delicate time, as much of the year has been dominated by community objections to future expansion at the airport, with the possible addition of an international flight terminal.
However, unlike concerns that the customs facility—requested by JetBlue earlier this year—would lead to the demise of the city’s noise ordinance, and revert it back to the regulations set at the federal level (which are far less restrictive), the new flight slots will actually serve to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Eighth District Councilman Al Austin, one of the most outspoken critics of potential challenges to the noise ordinance, addressed the meeting in his weekly newsletter to residents this week. He voiced his displeasure over the prospect of more daily flights, as his district lies in the path of takeoffs, but deferred to the city attorney’s insistence that the additional slots are in the best interest of preserving the noise ordinance.
“Like many of you, I'm not thrilled about this news, and I have many questions,” Austin wrote. “However, our first priority as a city must be to protect the city's airport noise ordinance, one of only a handful of such protections in the country that limits the number of commercial flights at an airport, and ensures a balance with the quality of life in our impacted neighborhoods.”
Although the council will not vote on the matter, and according to the city attorney’s office, the only way these findings could be challenged and reversed are if opposing metrics surfaced that disproved the peer-reviewed findings that will be presented Tuesday night, Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo said the council believes in being transparent and providing its constituents with the facts.
“This council embraces transparency and wants to make sure that residents have all the facts, so they’re aware of the issues and can support what it takes to defend our noise ordinance,” Mungo said. “We want everyone to get the same information at the same time.”
The facts are that the new slots would be allocated for air carrier planes carrying either cargo or passengers. Currently, the ordinance calls for a minimum of 41 such flights per day, but the airport has only averaged about 30 over the past year.
The ordinance allows—and in this case mandates—for the airport’s director, Bryant Francis, to allocate new slots to help meet those minimum requirements so long as the new flights don’t infringe on the maximum noise levels established by the ordinance. Two separate analyses of the airport’s noise levels confirmed the findings, with the authors of the study suggesting the added flights. Not granting the additional slots could place the airport and the city in a position of being too restrictive in terms of the noise ordinance, which could result in it being voided.
The flights would be good for one year running through next September, with Francis having the power to rescind them if they start to exceed the noise budget set by the ordinance.
According to separate audits of the airport noise levels during the one-year period ending September 30, LGB actually has an unused noise budget of about 40 percent. This is due in part to a decrease in activity at the airport, but also due to newer, quieter aircraft being operated at the facility.
Calculations show that under the noise ordinance's allotments, the airport could actually afford to implement 10.6 new flight slots, but because it never maxes out its theoretical capacity, it will introduce the nine in an effort to comply with the ordinance that has remained unchanged since 1995.
Several legal challenges have been levied against the city challenging the airport’s noise ordinance in the past, slowly raising the total number of minimum flights from 15 in 1981 to the current mark of 41 daily air carrier flights and 25 commuter flights. Any amendment or breach of the ordinance on the city’s behalf could place the airport under federal guidelines, which allow for more daily flights and louder noise thresholds. The breach of the ordinance has led to many impassioned letters and testimonies from community members defending the ordinance, with some threatening to leave the city if a federal customs facility is approved.
Others have gone so far as to allege collusion between elected officials and JetBlue to raise the number of daily flights. Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais said that’s simply not true.
Mais said that because of the decline in use of the much noisier MD80 airplanes, the allowable noise budget has actually been operating with a surplus for the past few years, just not enough to allocate new slots. However, the preponderance of quieter models like the A320 jets that JetBlue operates has widened those margins to the point where new slots could be introduced.
“It’s all about the numbers; the thing that is different this year, and what people will hear on Tuesday whether they choose to believe it or not, is there is room in the budget,” Mais said. “The mix of air carrier jets has changed. In years past we’ve had MD80s which are extremely noisy, so those types of jets being gone has left enough room in the budget.”
Whether or not there will be demand to fill those slots is undetermined and will be subject to a lottery system once any appeals process is exhausted. Given that the slots would only be open for a year and subject to review leaves the airport with the tough proposition of potentially trying to bring in new clients with no long-term commitment.
“Even if there was a carrier that wanted to expand into the Long Beach Airport it comes with significant risk to the business,” Mungo said. “It would be less risky for our current carriers expanding, it poses the least amount of risk and greatest amount of diversity for the community.”
The study session is scheduled for 6:00PM inside the City Hall council chambers.