LONG BEACH AIRPORT

Airlines that violate Long Beach Airport’s late-night noise control rules may soon face stiffer fines, and the most egregious offenders could even have their flight slots taken away.

Long Beach Airport Director Jess Romo said the proposal to increase penalties is an attempt to solve the growing problem of jets coming in at hours when the airport is supposed to be quiet, generally between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“The current fees we have in place are not enough to dissuade carriers,” Romo said.

Night violations are on the rise at LGB, due in part to increased popularity of the airport, with recent terminal improvements, added carriers (such as Hawaiian Airlines) and increased traffic as carriers are able to fully use all of their available slots. LGB’s number of daily flight slots also increased from 41 to 50 in spring 2016.

“There’s more activity, and part of that is that we’ve had a really good, active year,” Romo said. “Our end-of-year numbers were just under 3.8 million passengers, and that was up from 2.85 million the previous year.”

Violations in 2017 totaled 263, with 247 of those offenses coming from JetBlue, nine from American, four from Delta and three from Southwest. In 2016, the total was 124, with 115 from JetBlue, four from American and five from Delta. And in 2015, the total was 89, with 78 from JetBlue, six from American and five from Delta.

Violators today pay $100 for their third offense, then $300 on subsequent rule breaking. JetBlue, which boasts more than half of the airport’s flight slots and is the biggest violator of the late-night noise regulations, came to a separate agreement with the city in 2003 to pay higher penalties ($3,000 per violation) for out-of-curfew flights. Last year, an agreement with city Prosecutor Doug Haubert added $6,000 fines for the first six violations of any quarter.

Under the new proposal, airlines that have five or fewer curfew violations in a 24-month period would have to pay $2,500 fine. Fines would gradually increase in that same time period based on the number of offenses, on up to as much as $10,000. Airlines with 20 or more violations would risk forfeiting flight slots.

“Losing flight slots is probably the greatest concern to a carrier,” Romo said.

Besides the new fine structure, amendments also include a requirement for air carriers to maintain a certain level of utilization for their flight slots, which was an issue during the recession when some slots were going unused.

The specifics of how JetBlue’s separate agreement with the city would interface on top of the new fine structure are not yet clear, Romo said. It would be at the airline’s discretion whether or not to renew their consent decree with the city.

“We are not doing this to single out any particular carrier, but we are not ignoring the fact that one carrier is a bigger violator than any others,” Romo said. “Ideally, we would like carriers to respect that we have operating restrictions and schedule and operate within those restrictions.”

The proposal — which would modify the city’s airport noise control ordinance for the first time since it was enacted in 1995 — was first shown to the public last week at an Airport Advisory Commission meeting. There will be more opportunities for the community to learn more and weigh in on the change in the coming months, and Romo said he is hopeful a decision can be reached before the end of this year.

“We invite everyone to be part of the process,” Romo said. “We’re working in conjunction with the Federal Aviation Administration, the airlines, other aviation stakeholders, and especially the community toward a reasonable outcome that benefits all.”

If the rules were tightened, on what is already one of the country’s strictest airport noise control ordinances, the proposal would require approval by the City Council. Airport officials said they are also getting feedback from legal experts before moving forward. They are moving forward cautiously within the confines of the ordinance, Romo said, because city officials must be sure that any amendment will not endanger the noise regulation as a whole.

The existing ordinance has already spent significant time in court, Romo pointed out. When it was first established in 1981, for example, it subsequently spent more than a decade in the courts after being challenged by air carriers before being agreed to in a court settlement in 1995. Today, it is grandfathered under the Airport Noise and Capacity Act of 1990.

“We need strict assurance that this wouldn’t jeopardize the ordinance … or impact our grandfathered status,” Romo said, noting that other airports with similar noise ordinances have been able to enact changes such as the ones being proposed at LGB, and the proposed fine structure would match that of nearby airfields.

Another cause for apprehension on airport officials’ radar is that the proposal also could impact the airport’s relationship with air carriers if LGB is seen as unfriendly towards business. Romo said his staff would be working closely with the carriers to get a full picture of their objections.

“No one is threatening to leave or sue, as far as I know,” Romo said. “We’ve sent letters to the carriers and had conversations, and there is definitely concern on their part about these amendments… This is about balancing the bona fide need for air service in this area and the needs of the community.”

Two more community outreach meetings have been scheduled. The first will be at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 7, at the Long Beach Gas & Oil Auditorium (2400 E. Spring St.). The second is set for 10 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Expo Arts Center (4321 Atlantic Ave.).

Ashleigh Ruhl is a contributor for the Grunion. She can be reached at ashleighruhl@gmail.com.

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