In Closed Session

There's been plenty of news recently about JetBlue — the primary airline at Long Beach Municipal Airport — and its proclivity to land airplanes after the airport's 11 p.m. curfew.

JetBlue pays a pretty penny each time it breaks the rule — $3,000 for each of the first six violations in the quarter, then $6,000 for every incident after that. The money goes to the Long Beach Library Foundation to be spent on books, computers and other material.

Thanks to the fact that money is a significant amount, there has been a bit of talk recently about why it goes to the Library Foundation. And there's the underlying issue of having planes land after 11 p.m., when all good people are cuddled in bed.

But there's little that can be done without opening a huge can of worms. Here's why.

Our fair city has an extremely unusual law called the noise ordinance that allows us to limit the number and time of flights. The ordinance was part of a lawsuit settlement with the commercial airlines operating here back in the early 1990s. The Federal Aviation Administration blessed it back then, and hasn't revisited it since.

Under that deal, airplanes are supposed to be restricted to a 7 a.m.-11 p.m. time frame to land or take off. The curfew is supposed to be 10 p.m., but between 10 and 11, flyers can come up with excuses and avoid fines.

It all worked pretty well until 2001, when JetBlue came riding to the rescue of a then-floundering Long Beach Airport. JetBlue was flying primarily cross-country back then, going to New York City, Boston, Florida and other points east. Those long flights compounded problems when they occurred (ice forms on airplanes in the cold back east), and you can't just turn the plane around when you're late. So curfew violations multiplied to the point far beyond administrative slaps on the wrist. The issue was sent to the city prosecutor to file misdemeanor charges as provided by the ordinance.

The city prosecutor at the time, Tom Reeves, understandably didn't want to go to court every time JetBlue was late; JetBlue didn't either. So Reeves hammered out a consent decree to be blessed by the court setting up the fine structure and the recipient of the money. So there's the answer to half the puzzle — there's no easy way to change who gets the windfall. If someone was determined to do so, the consent decree would be thrown out altogether, allowing JetBlue to ask the court for relief from the curfew. That, in turn, could jeopardize the noise ordinance as a whole.

Moving on to the second half of the equation — increasing late flights. A quick look at how much JetBlue has paid in fines tells the story. In 2015, it was $354,000. That jumped to $594,000 in 2016. But what really got Fourth District Councilman Daryl Supernaw's dander up was the figure for the first six months this year. At $639,900, it already is more than $45,000 higher — with six months to go.

JetBlue officials declined to be interviewed, responding with a statement from Corporate Communications. "We build our flight schedule to adhere to the noise ordinance and make every effort to respect that while ensuring our customers arrive safely to their destination," the statement said.

Supernaw says that's not good enough. His constituents are suffering from sleep depravation, and Supernaw's not going to take it anymore.

Only he can't do anything through the consent decree. He has to go straight to the noise ordinance — and we've been told forever by airport activists that any attempted change could kill the thing, opening up the chance for the FAA to require Long Beach to be open 24/7. Even in a best case scenario, a need for FAA approval of a new or amended ordinance likely would add flights here. And if you don't think new (in Long Beach) competitor Southwest Airlines wouldn't jump at that chance, think again.

"I need to explore if there's anything we can do," Supernaw said. "This has gotten way out of control… We're looking to curtail after-curfew flights."

More power to you, Mr. Supernaw. But don't be surprised if you find yourself in a "Guys And Dolls" musical number, with people saying, "Sit down. You're rocking the boat."

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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