Court Takes Up Airlines’ Assault on Long Beach Noise Law
Three years after he found Long Beach’s airport noise ordinance arbitrary and invalid, a federal judge began this week to hear arguments from airline attorneys who say a new noise law should also be struck down because it, too, would unreasonably restrict commercial flights at Long Beach Airport.
In a report to U.S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters, who is expected to issue a preliminary ruling in the case Sept. 8, Alaska Airlines maintained that portions of the city’s new plan “are fundamentally unlawful, being discriminatory, arbitrary and in violation of the Constitution, federal statutes and regulations.” Alaska said it would propose specific remedies later.
Three other airlines, however, sought an immediate increase in airline flights from 18 to 26 and then a rapid increase to 41, and argued in legal documents that key parts of the new ordinance are “without any technical basis” and should be declared invalid.
Waters agreed with similar arguments by airlines in 1983, when he threw out the city’s noise ordinance and ordered it to draft a new ordinance based on a thorough study of airport noise. After 20 months of study by a special task force and adoption of the new ordinance, the city says it has completed that task.
The judge is expected to indicate whether he agrees following a Sept. 8 hearing, said attorneys for the city. But his final ruling is not expected until January, when the Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to officially respond to the new ordinance.
During the next six weeks, lawyers for nearly a dozen airlines--some already at the airport and some trying to get in--are expected to file sometimes conflicting motions with Waters. All will be attacking provisions of the new ordinance.
The city, meanwhile, will ask Waters to lift his injunction that has controlled airport flights since July, 1983, and replace it with the new city ordinance.
In the city’s view, lawyers told Waters, the new ordinance is a compromise that considers both the effects of airport noise on nearby homeowners and legal pressure by airlines and the federal government to increase flights to at least 40 because of national transportation needs.
Lee L. Blackman, a lawyer hired by the city to represent it in airport matters, said the ordinance reflects a “balance of views . . . an accommodation of all interests” that “allows increases in passenger service . . . without imposing on the community noise that is excessive.” No side is happy with the plan, he told the court, noting that the city is being sued by several hundred disgruntled airport-area homeowners who want no more flights.
The new ordinance would allow airline flights to increase slowly from 18 to 32, but only if average aircraft noise is lowered and then kept within state-endorsed levels for adjacent residential areas.
The ordinance would limit airport noise in several ways and impose tough fines on violators, while not going as far as the 41-flight maximum recommended by the city-appointed task force.
But the airlines and the FAA have attacked the ordinance because it would allow fewer flights than recommended by the city task force--32 compared to 41--and because flights would be increased by a maximum of only two every three months, instead of in increments of eight as the task force recommended.
Several airlines also have expressed concern about a provision in the new law that would give preference to new airlines as noise reductions permit more flights.
Competition, Not Benefit
Airlines already at the airport say they would be asked to reduce noise with quieter planes and operating methods but, instead of benefiting, would face increased competition since those reductions would allow more flights by rivals moving into the airport. In that way, the ordinance works against a reduction in noise to a level that would allow more flights, agreed lawyers for airlines trying to get into the airport.
Long Beach-based Jet America, which has six of the current 18 Long Beach flights, took a different tack in challenging the city’s ordinance, arguing that Waters should not rule on the new ordinance until next year, after the FAA has had a chance to respond.
In response, Blackman said the city would be happy to retain the current 18 flights indefinitely.
But Kenneth Weinstein, speaking for the federal Department of Transportation and the FAA, said “the government is most distressed” that no increase in flights has been allowed at Long Beach for three years. The federal government favors an immediate increase to 26, he told Waters.