Airport commissioners look on as Long Beach’s airport director lays out a plan to potentially amend the LGB’s noise ordinance. Photo by Jason Ruiz.
The first public airport advisory commission meeting held since Long Beach announced it would pursue changes to its noise ordinance in hopes of silencing late-night flight activity was very much like most meetings regarding Long Beach Airport (LGB).
The room at The Grand Event Center Thursday afternoon was filled with anxiety that changes to the ordinance would welcome legal challenges, and contempt from the public for JetBlue Airlines.
In a statement earlier this week the city announced it would take the unprecedented move of starting the process to augment its fine schedule for airlines that violate its late-night noise curfew (10:00PM-7:00AM), increasing the fines from the current $100 and $300 amounts to ones that could approach $10,000 per violation with potential loss of flight slots for the most frequent offenders.
JetBlue entered into a consent decree with the city that sees it pay a larger fine for its violations instead of facing criminal prosecution and airport staff stated that the consent decree would remain unaffected by the proposed changes to the noise ordinance.
The fines in the city’s noise ordinance have not been changed since 1995. JetBlue, the airport’s tenant with the largest share of flight slots also has the largest share of violations.
Noise statistics published by LGB showed that JetBlue had incurred 233 of the 247 air carrier violations through November prompting questions from the public of whether the airline was the problem, not the fines assessed for late night activity.
Responding to a commissioner’s remark characterizing offenders as “unlucky” or “mismanaged”, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Associate General Counsel for JetBlue Robert Land said that the airline was neither.
“We don’t consider ourselves unlucky and certainly don’t consider ourselves mismanaged,” Land said. “We do consider ourselves a Northeast-based airline that flies heavily in the Northeast. Seventy percent of our flights touch the Northeast everyday. And we are the largest carrier of the Long Beach Airport to the Bay Area, which is second only to the Northeast in air traffic control delays.”
He also noted that JetBlue’s share of the noise curfew was not disproportionate to its share of slots. He added that the airline is constantly examining its flight schedule and its ultimate goal is to be on time with every flight.
“JetBlue doesn’t want flights to be late any of the time,” Land said. “We say we’re going to get you from A to B at a time that you want to go and you choose us because of that schedule. It’s not in our interest to have you dislike us because we didn’t honor what we sold you.”
Still, the calls from the community to leave the ordinance intact and to target JetBlue specifically continued. One man suggested the city, the Federal Aviation Administration and JetBlue be locked in a room until an agreement was reached.
“No food, no water, and two really big guys with baseball bats at the only exit of the room,” he said.
Another suggested the city leverage its consent decree that the city prosecutor’s office has with JetBlue to force the airline to curtail its late-night flight activity. The city prosecutor’s office recently updated those fees assessed to the airline in lieu of criminal prosecution.
Under that new agreement updated in August JetBlue pays a $6,000 fine for every landing or takeoff between 11:00PM and 7:00AM. According to airport staff, those fines totaled over $1.2 million last year, all of which went to the Long Beach Public Library Foundation. Other airlines operating at LGB paid a sum totaling just over $20,000 for their violations.
Airport staff made clear that the goal is not to increase fine revenue, rather getting to zero dollars is the end game.
Included in the proposed changes to the ordinance is the way the airport requires airlines to utilize slots it holds for flights. A flight slot is considered a landing and a takeoff, or a takeoff and a landing, and currently a flight slot is considered “utilized” if it’s used 57 percent of the time. Under proposed changes a carrier would have to utilize its slots 85 percent over the entire year or risk forfeiture of the slot.
The meeting was the first of a series of community meetings and consultations that the city will undertake to determine if the move to change the fine schedule is feasible or if it endangers the city’s noise ordinance. For years the city has operated under the assumption that if the ordinance had been changed it could invite litigation from airlines trying to gain a foothold at LGB.
Long Beach Airport Director Jess Romo said what has changed is the fact that other airports like John Wayne Airport in Costa Mesa have also changed their fine schedules. The proposed changes in Long Beach almost mirror those at John Wayne with fines starting at $2,500 per violation and working their way up to a $5,000-$10,000 range.
“It’s not like it hasn’t been done, and that’s why we believe there’s an opportunity to do this and to do it now,” Romo said. “We’re doing this very carefully and if there’s ever any point where we wouldn’t have the support of the FAA, we would stop.”
The last part could be a critical stopping point for the airport as Romo said it would likely stop its pursuit of any change to the ordinance if it didn’t receive written support from the FAA that its changes would stand up to any potential challenge by airlines. If there is a legal challenge the airport would be on the hook for its legal fees, something else Romo said would be taken into account during this process.
If the proposed amendments do get a nod of approval from the FAA they would be formally presented to the city council for a potential vote. The original timetable set by the airport for the potential vote to happen was during the first quarter of this year but Romo said that given the date and where the airport is in the process that timeline would have to be revised, adding that he hoped it could be presented within the calendar year.
“There is much more work to do,” Romo said. “I would have to revise that estimate but I will tell you this, we’re going to take as much time as we need. We’re not going to drag our feet, but we’re not going to try and rush this through.”