The Long Beach City Council is slated to hear and deny a final appeal from JetBlue Airways Tuesday night regarding exemptions that the airline was seeking regarding a few dozen of its late night flights that violated the city’s airport noise ordinance.
JetBlue is challenging about $96,000 in late night flight fines from 2017 that it says should be exempt because they were the result of air traffic control instructions from other airports.
It contends that the language within the city’s noise ordinance provides for air traffic control related delays to be exempted but Jess Romo, the city’s airport director, says that the city’s noise ordinance has been interpreted to mean that those instructions have to originate from the Long Beach control tower to qualify.
In an October 2017 letter to JetBlue representatives Romo said that the interpretation had not been an issue with the airline regarding late night flight violations until recently.
“In fact, JetBlue routinely self-reports late night curfew violations,” Romo wrote. “Therefore, this interpretation of the Noise Ordinance is certainly not ‘new.’ Rather, it continues in a consistent manner the important enforcement of the curfew provisions of the Noise Ordinance.”
The hearing will come one week after JetBlue announced a downgrading of service levels at Long Beach Airport (LGB), a move that reportedly was prompted in part by the city’s denial to allow the airline to construct an international terminal at LGB.
An appeals process that began in the middle of 2017 will culminate Tuesday night as the city council votes to approve or deny the appeal sought by JetBlue. The $96,000 figure pales in comparison to the millions of dollars in fines paid by the airline over the past decade and a half thought a consent decree it entered into with the city prosecutor’s office.
In transcriptions from previous appeal hearings, Robert Land, senior vice president for government affairs and associate general counsel for the airline, said that JetBlue’s recent objection to the interpretation is irrelevant and it not objecting to the airport’s reading of the rule does not preclude JetBlue from doing so now.
Land outlined scenarios of why some of the 47 flights JetBlue is seeking exemptions for were late. For instance, he said a June 8th flight from San Francisco to Long Beach which arrived at 10:50PM was the result of a domino effect of weather and directions from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that delayed earlier flights carried out by the aircraft that day.
It began with its morning flight to Seattle being delayed by 20 minutes due to low visibility, light rain and fog. The return trip back to Long Beach had a 43-minute delay as the plane was designated a late arrival. The aircraft then flew to San Francisco where the setbacks in Seattle combined with an FAA ground delay again ballooned the cumulative pushback for the eventual night flight back to Long Beach.
A second flight detailed by Land originated from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, which was delayed by a late flight from Boston and then sat on the tarmac for over an hour. After being assigned a new flight path to avoid storm cells in the middle of the country, the aircraft which normally could make the transcontinental flight without refueling, had to stop in Phoenix for gas. He said it missed its cutoff time at LGB by four minutes.
JetBlue is a New York-based airline and the majority of its service originates from the Northeast part of the country. Land said that while Long Beach’s control tower is part of the FAA’s system of coordination, JetBlue pilots cannot ignore directions given by other towers in other cities to ensure that flights arrive before the Long Beach curfew kicks in as they would lose their license. Comparing it to a water hose, Land said that a kink anywhere in the system is going to cause delays and the city should be understanding of that.
“According to the City’s unsubstantiated view, for example, on a day like today, a sunny day, if the FAA in San Francisco, which might have fog, or the FAA in New York City, which might be having thunderstorms, refuses to clear a Long Beach aircraft to depart and delays them on the ground past curfew here in Long Beach, that would not be exempt because the Long Beach tower didn’t exempt it or didn’t direct it from a Long Beach perspective,” Land said during an October appeals hearing. “That defies logic and the plain language of the noise ordinance.”
The ordinance states that air traffic control issues can exempt a flight for landing or taking off late but does not stipulate that the directives have to originate from the Long Beach tower. Land pointed to a case law that he said supports JetBlue’s position and hinted that the city’s stance on the issue not only has an “unjust and discriminatory” impact on the airline, but could violate federal law.
The latter issue has been an oft spoken-about fear of city leaders as they’ve sought to maintain the city’s noise ordinance—one of the most restrictive of its kind—that allows it to police decibel levels at the airport. Any kind of federal intervention or lawsuit has been pointed to as having potential to further scale down the noise ordinance’s power or have it stripped away completely leaving regulation of the airport up to federal governance.
In responses to Land, the city maintained that JetBlue has several avenues to avoid the late night flight fees, including canceling or diverting flights, using a different aircraft to keep flights on time or providing passengers with sleeping arrangements until a new flight that doesn’t violate the noise ordinance can be completed.
In his memo to the mayor and city council, Romo said to interpret the ordinance in the way that JetBlue is seeking would render it, and the protections against late night flight noise, meaningless.
The council meeting is scheduled to take place at 5:00PM on Tuesday, May 8 in the council chambers at city hall, located at 333 West Ocean Boulevard.