Long Beach Airport officials announced late Thursday that they will start the process to amend the city's noise ordinance and punish airlines landing after the airport is supposed to be closed.
Airport Director Jess Romo said in a release that nearby John Wayne Airport had successfully amended its noise ordinance — which is similar to Long Beach's — to significantly increase fines for curfew violations. He also said that the Federal Aviation Administration had been consulted and concurred that an amendment would not jeopardize the grandfathered noise ordinance.
"We are encouraged that with recent administrative regulation changes made at other noise controlled airports, there is precedent for the city to make some adaptations to our airport noise regulations," Romo said in the release.
Without ever naming JetBlue Airlines, the action clearly is a reaction to Long Beach's primary tenant. JetBlue long has been the primary curfew violator, with frequent landings after 11 p.m., largely from late-night flights from the East Coast. In a nine-page memo to City Manager Pat West, Romo said that curfew violations increased from 89 in 2015 to 134 in 2016.
But what prompted consideration of the changes, Romo said, was the fact that violations had doubled — to 133 violations in the first six months of 2017. Fourth District Councilman Daryl Supernaw called that spike to the public's and city staff's attention two months ago.
While the airport's current administrative fines are negligible — $100 to $300 maximum — a 2003 consent decree between the city prosecutor's office and JetBlue setting fines of $3,000 for the first six violations in a quarter, and $6,000 for each subsequent violation. City Prosecutor Doug Haubert announced Wednesday that JetBlue officials had agreed to pay $6,000 for the first six violations as well.
Neither Romo's memo nor the press release addresses that decree, which was negotiated in lieu of misdemeanor prosecutions for each curfew violation.
"If the City Council takes administrative or legislative action that results in better compliance with the law, I don't see that conflicting with action taken by my office," Haubert said Thursday in an email. "They are separate. Both of us may be motivated by the same thing — reducing Noise Ordinance violations — but these are distinctly different tracks."
“We are committed to reduce the number of nightly curfew violations at the Long Beach Airport,” Mayor Robert Garcia said in the release. "It's important that we protect the quality of life of the thousands of residents who are being affected by the constant violations."
Romo said in the press release that he is working with the city attorney's office and had consulted with the FAA before proceeding. Airport staff has prepared proposed amendments to the ordinance in order to start discussions with airlines, residents and other stakeholders.
Those proposals include an escalating fine structure that culminates in the potential of taking flight slots away from the offending airline. Specifically, the recommendations are:
• Increase fines for curfew and noise violations to $2,500 for the first through fifth violation in any 24-month period.
• Fines of $3,000 to $5,000 for the sixth through 10th violations.
• Fines of $5,000 to $10,000 thereafter in any 24-month period, with disqualification and forfeiture of slots possible for 20 or more violations.
Also, Romo and his staff want to change the rules about how airlines operate to maintain slots allocated to them. Currently, a slot is considered in operation if at least 30 flights are flown per slot in any 60-day period. That level of use, according to the memo to the city manager, "arguably provides for the potential to engage in anti-competitive behavior by maintaining flight slots that are underutilized and, thereby, restricts opportunities for new entrants or other incumbent air carriers that might otherwise be able to operate the slots."
The airport staff is recommending that the rule be changed to require use of a slot 60% per month, 70% per quarter and 85% in a year (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30). In addition to losing that slot, other penalties in the new rule would allow the airport to be disqualified from receiving any additional flights.
Now airport staff will start a process of reviews before asking the City Council to change the Noise Ordinance and related rules. First, a letter will be sent to air carriers and other stakeholders for review and comments. Then there will be a series of public meetings. Then a staff report will be sent to the council for consideration.
In virtually every discussion in the past about changes at the airport since the noise ordinance was passed in 1995, a primary argument would be that it might threaten the elimination of the noise ordinance by the FAA. Romo's memo says that he will request a formal written opinion from the Chief Council of the FAA agreeing that the protections of the Long Beach noise ordinance would not be jeopardized before asking the City Council to make any changes.
Harry Saltzgaver can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.