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Unexpectedly Quiet Test Flights by BAe-146 Cause Stir

Times Staff Writer

County Supervisor Thomas F. Riley was on the phone a good part of Friday morning, talking with constituents in Newport Beach about the unexpectedly quiet noise tests performed by PSA’s new British Aerospace jet, the BAe-146, at John Wayne Airport.

Roger Luby, a friend of the supervisor from the exclusive area near Upper Newport Bay, reported that the plane “went over with no noise,” Riley said.

“Roger and his wife were standing out in the backyard, and he said they applauded, the dog applauded, the gardener and the maid applauded . . . . I guess if you’re going to have problems, it’s best to have these kind,” Riley said.

County officials said Friday, however, that it will take at least another several weeks to devise a plan for regulating the new plane, which registered noise levels so low in testing Thursday that it may be exempt from the county’s present cap of 41 daily jet departures from the airport, scheduled to increase to 55 flights on April 1.

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The plane crossed the noise monitors at less than 86 decibels--substantially quieter than any other commercial jet--prompting new questions about how far the county can go in regulating aircraft leaving the airport.

Imposing noise standards below 86 decibels would put the county far outside the realm of other airport noise regulations throughout the nation, because such standards would for the first time include small commuter aircraft and even some general-aviation planes, airport manager Murry Cable said.

“We’d have everybody against us: the FAA, the airlines . . . we’d be out there by ourselves in a never-never land,” he said.

Michael Gatzke, the county’s special airport counsel, explained: “Once you get below 86 (decibels), you begin to get into an area where you’re talking about a substantial majority of the airplanes that fly at that airport.”

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To alleviate charges of discrimination, he said, “You might eventually find yourself in the position where you have to be allocating . . . departures to Cessna 150s.”

County officials are nonetheless discussing a number of options that would prevent PSA from qualifying for an unlimited number of flights for its BAe-146, including a new system of incentive flights for the aircraft, tying PSA’s flights to the physical capacity of the airport terminal and parking areas (which could expand total flights up to as many as 62 daily) or classifying the aircraft as a commuter and imposing new restrictions on commuter airlines.

Gatzke said he had no immediate recommendations, pending the plane’s final tests scheduled for this morning.

“I’m going to wait and see what the results of those tests are, and then we’ll sit down and discuss all of the issues that might be raised by this . . . ,” he said. “I’m confident that this can be worked out in a way that will be acceptable to everybody.”

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Riley said he expects the Board of Supervisors to discuss the issue on Feb. 26, when a new master plan and airline departure allocation plan is up for final review.

“I think we are going to review the alternatives and the possibilities that are open to us, and see where we should go. Although anybody who’s a realist knows there are political pressures as well as reasonable solutions to problems,” Riley said. “PSA’s management has been very cooperative throughout the past year, and certainly I expect them to continue that.”

In fact, Riley’s staff members said they see no urgent need to resolve the issue immediately unless PSA actually submits a request for unrestricted flights, which the airline so far has not indicated it will do.

PSA spokesman Bill Hastings said the airline’s current planning includes three extra flights that the BAe-146 would normally qualify for under the county’s incentive program by meeting an 89.5-decibel requirement.

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Beyond that, he said, “We’re talking to see what we might be able to do. I guess it’s still a pleasant dilemma to be in. There obviously are some discussions going on. We’ll work with the county airport staff, and it all depends on what we come up with.”

Airlines Reserve Judgment

Most of the other airlines serving John Wayne Airport--none of which have ordered the BAe-146--were reserving judgment.

Fred Davis, a marketing executive with Jet America and a co-founder of the now-defunct Pacific Express airline, said Pacific had once ordered several BAe-146s with the expectation that they would be exempt from most noise regulations at Southern California airports.

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But Jet America flies longer routes, primarily to Chicago, and the McDonnell Douglas MD-80 (which typically measures about 96 decibels leaving John Wayne) is more suited to its needs, Davis said, adding that the airline is not concerned about the prospect of unlimited flights for the BAe-146. “As long as we get our two slots, we don’t care what happens to PSA,” he said.

John Lyons of America West said that carrier is not concerned about how many departures PSA is permitted, so long as they fall within the board’s regulation plan. “Obviously, our general position is that any plan they come up with has to be non-discriminatory,” he said.

Lyons said he believes that PSA’s four regular departures, plus its three incentive flights if they are awarded, would be open for other airlines if PSA phased in a whole fleet of BAe-146s and was determined exempt from the departure ceiling at John Wayne.

Final Test Results Awaited

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Tom Malcolm, attorney for Continental Airlines, said the county “should establish a regulatory procedure to determine an equitable way to allocate the average daily departures as a result of the PSA breakthrough . . . . We really feel they should be regulated.” Continental has recently purchased several Boeing 737-300s, another new-technology aircraft that qualified for incentive flights last week at slightly higher noise levels than the BAe-146.

Most of the other airlines serving John Wayne said they want to see the PSA aircraft’s final test results and the regulatory mechanism devised by the county before taking a position.

In Newport Beach, where resistance to jet overflights has been heated over the years, city officials still had not formed a firm opinion on how to deal with the new aircraft.

“The hope has always been that new technology will be there to help us solve some of the problems. But the city has steadfastly maintained that we’re not advocating transferring our problems to somebody else,” said Councilwoman Jacqueline Heather, expressing concerns about past noise tests which have shown that the BAe-146 can be noisier on its landing approach than on takeoff.

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‘Burden on Tustin’

“Unlimited, I think, would put a terrible burden on Tustin,” she said. (Actual arrival noise readings for the BAe-146’s Orange County tests were not available Friday.)

Barbara Lichman, executive director of the Airport Working Group, a coalition of homeowners’ associations in Newport Beach, said the organization has not yet formed a position on the new aircraft. “I’d have to say off the top of my head, unlimited anything, all things in moderation, for crying out loud,” she said.

Riley said Newport Beach Councilwoman Evelyn Hart contacted him Friday morning and appeared “encouraged” by the test results. “Right now, I think we’re all just excited about the fact we do have this quiet airplane, at least a decade earlier than anyone thought,” Riley said.

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Contributing to this story was Times Orange County Bureau Chief Jeffrey A. Perlman.


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