There were concerned citizens voicing displeasure at the prospect of more airplanes taking off and touching down over their homes. There were calls for review of both the study that concluded more flight slots at Long Beach Airport were necessary to comply with the ordinance, and for the termination of the airport’s director, Bryant Francis.
However, after a study session that eclipsed two hours of aviation noise dialogue, it was merely that, as no action by the council was required to approve or find a way to stop the airport’s obligation to offer nine new flight slots as outlined in the city’s noise ordinance—a document that has remained unchanged since being grandfathered into effect in 1995.
Because of the surplus in the airport’s noise budget that has been created in part by declining flights, but also by a switch by airline companies to quieter planes, Francis stated a provision in the ordinance that stipulates that airports must offer the additional slots, something that the airport had been in a position to do for at least a few years and is now acting on.
"One of the strengths of the ordinance is it accounts for changes in the industry, such as the use of quieter aircraft while holding the noise levels to maximum limits," Francis said. "Because of the ordinance we are able to ensure that our noise levels will not increase, the best way to be able to ensure that we are able to keep the ordinance in place is to abide by it."
The calculations made to arrive at the nine new supplemental slots to be offered at Long Beach Airport were based on a formula that assumed all current slots were being utilized at 95 percent. According to Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais, the historical 10-year average is about 87 percent, so the 95 percent projection is considerably conservative.
What concerns Mais and others involved in the decision making process for the airport is what kind of planes might fill those slots if airlines put bids in to claim them. The phasing out of 727s and MD80s, much louder planes than currently fly at the airport, has in part increased the noise budget that led to this finding in the airport's annual noise evaluation report. If those planes were to be reintroduced to LGB, it could force a reassessment of the slots, which the ordinance also provides for, and the noisiest ones would be rescinded first.
"Even if JetBlue were to fly at 100 percent, which I believe, [historically], no air carrier has ever done at the airport, there would still be room in the budget," Mais said. "So really, it’s more dependent on the fleet mix."
Still, the idea that the solution to an airport that has grown quieter over the years, with the help of an ordinance that generations of residents have fought to keep in place is to add more noise did not sit well with some.
Larry Boland, who had been part of previous studies in the '90s, said the real issue is noise events, two separate occurrences. He added that noise buckets are arbitrary and the prospect of additional slots was never discussed prior to the adoption of the ordinance.
"Had somebody came up and said ‘down in the future, when we finally quiet this airport down and get rid of the noise pollution, if we get too quiet we’re going to add some pollution back into the equation,'" Boland said. "That is just ridiculous."
Joe Sopo, a neighborhood representative and member of the HUSH2 community group, took issue with what he characterized as an attempt by Francis to spring this report’s findings on an unprepared community.
"To drop this on us on a Saturday afternoon, reflects on how Mr. Francis treats us," said Sopo. "You’re talking about an appeal process, is there an appeal process to relieve Mr. Francis of his job? Mr. Francis, since he’s come into office, it’s obvious that he sees us neighborhood representatives as the enemy."
The sentiment was shared by some members of council, with Seventh District Councilman Roberto Uranga coining the term "afternoon surprise" to characterize the fashion in which they were notified. Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson called it “shocking” that something so major landed on his desk over the weekend and called for city staff to err on the side of transparency in the future.
What was made very clear was that the new flight slots have no bearing or connection to the pending issue of an international terminal and customs facility at LGB. Even if the council vote okayed the construction of the international terminal, those slots would be included into the current noise budget, meaning there would likely be a shuffling of domestic flight slots to allow for international travel.
The slots will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis until they’re allocated with new carriers not already at the airport, getting two slots per application, while carriers like JetBlue would be entitled to one. However, Mais said that it is possible that nobody applies for the slots, in which case they would remain open through the year ending September 30, 2016. Merely offering them places the city in compliance with the ordinance.
Mayor Robert Garica noted that this is a very important issue and for some, it’s the most important issue in regard to their quality of life. However, he reiterated what Francis and Mais spent the better part of the study session laying out, the fact that if the ordinance is compromised in any direction it could spell the end of it leading to the loss of its protections against more flights and the city’s ability to regulate its airport.
"One of the difficulties with our noise ordinance, in its constructions one of its major flaws is our ability to modify the ordinance post-adoption," Garcia said. "When we talk about ‘why didn’t we make changes or we should change the noise levels,' the fact is that any changes to a grandfathered document could put the noise ordinance in grave jeopardy. And instead of having a conversation about 41 flights or 50 flights, we’re talking about 100 flights because we don’t have a protective ordinance."