The city’s new airport noise ordinance failed its first court test this week when a federal judge said he had “serious questions” about its legality and refused to allow its implementation.
U. S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters, saying the 3-year-old Long Beach Airport case has dragged on far longer than expected, also indicated that he may soon allow an increase in daily airline flights from 18 to 26.
“What is relatively clear at this point . . . is that some new flight activity is justified at Long Beach Airport,” Waters said. He promised to act promptly on the airlines’ motion for an immediate increase of at least eight flights.
In reaction, the City Council said Tuesday that it would appeal an award by Waters of new flights if that decision comes before he acts on the new ordinance as a whole. That final decision is not expected until January, when the Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to submit its analysis of the new plan.
Councilman Thomas Clark said Waters should also be aware of heightened concern about more flights at Long Beach Airport, which is ringed by homes and schools, in light of last week’s collision between a small plane and an airliner over Cerritos.
Waters’ ruling Monday was in response to a city request that he lift his injunction that has controlled airport flights since July, 1983, when he found an old noise ordinance to be arbitrary because it was not supported by sufficient technical data.
The new ordinance, city lawyers told Waters, is based on such data. It is, they argued, 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.
The 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.
It 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 a city-appointed and FAA-funded task force that studied airport noise for almost two years.
Waters’ strongest objections to the new ordinance were in areas where it differed from the recommendations of the city’s own task force. “Significant portions of that study were rejected by the city,” he noted.
The city’s refusal to adopt a task force recommendation to move private jets from the airport’s main runway to a shorter one along the San Diego Freeway was “rather troubling,” Waters said. The move would have shifted enough noise away from residential neighborhoods to industrial areas along the freeway so that 41 flights, not 32, would have been possible within the state noise guidelines.
The City Council has said it wants to keep the loud private jets on the main runway because it doesn’t want to increase noise levels on one side of the airport so it can lower them in another. Lee L. Blackman, the city’s lawyer, also argued that only the FAA could dictate runway use.
In a second main argument, Blackman contended that a 32-flight limit was reasonable because hundreds of lawsuits brought against the city by nearby homeowners cite the number of flight “intrusions,” not average noise, as a reason for legal action.
While the averaging of all noise provides an effective gauge by which noise can be limited, “it is not the whole story,” Blackman said. “It doesn’t tell you how many times (classroom) teaching has been interrupted . . . or barbecues in the backyard have been interrupted.”
Airline attorneys, however, said that Blackman’s intrusion argument was without support in law, and the judge seemed to agree.
Waters specifically cited that fact, as well as the city’s refusal to switch runway use for private jets and “other inadequacies” in the new ordinance in refusing to implement it.
He said the ordinance “obviously is going . . . to require a lot of study” and is not yet a reasonable balance between the interests of Long Beach and national transportation needs.
Blackman said the city will have to wait until Waters rules--probably within a week--on the airlines’ request for more flights before deciding what to do next.
Attorneys for the airlines said Waters’ ruling on Monday was easier than the one still facing him. If he allows more flights, he must decide which airlines will get them, or turn that decision over to the Long Beach council for resolution.
Most airline lawyers, frustrated by what they see as Long Beach’s go-slow tactics in the case, asked Waters to make the allocation himself. “Anytime we have referred anything to the city for study it has become a black hole of resolution,” said attorney John Lyons of America West.
Allocation of Flights
The new ordinance says that the city should allocate all new flights to airlines not now serving the airport. The city task force, however, recommended that the first eight flights go to new airlines and the next seven to those already at the airport.
The various airlines have begun arguing over the allocation of the flights, with several jockeying for advantage by flying quieter jets in Long Beach.
Attorneys for new-entrant airlines Western, Air California and America West asked Waters for the eight additional flights, while current carriers--Jet America, United, Alaska, American and PSA--said they should not be shut out of the new allocations.
Alaska and PSA, in particular, said they were taking steps that could significantly decrease airport noise and should be rewarded for their efforts.
Alaska’s continued use of a noisy Boeing 727 has been a sore point with the city for years, but with airline operations under court control, the City Council has been powerless to force the old plane out.
Alaska will replace the plane with a much quieter, modern aircraft after Monday, said its attorney George Juarez. And other lawyers argued that without the 727, the airport could immediately add eight flights by much quieter planes without exceeding state noise limits for residential areas.
A PSA spokesman, meanwhile, said that airline has begun flying the BAe-146 into the Long Beach Airport once a day to demonstrate to the city the type of quiet airliner it could operate here if given the incentive to do so. The small, 85-passenger, British-built airplane is so quiet it sometimes does not trigger noise-monitoring equipment at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, airport officials there have said.
If Waters does not take into account such efforts when awarding new flights, “there will be absolutely no incentive for us to try to bring our own quiet aircraft into the community,” said PSA’s Dennis O’Dell.
With greatly increased use of the BAe-146 and the quiet Boeing 737-300, flights at John Wayne have increased from 41 to 87 in 16 months, while average noise has decreased, officials there said. Nearly all of the current flights at Long Beach are with 150-passenger MD-80s by Douglas Aircraft Co.
61 Daily Flights
Richard Sherman, attorney for Air Cal, said Long Beach Airport could accommodate 61 daily flights with MD-80s or 101 by 737-300s without exceeding noise levels for residential neighborhoods. The city task force, however, said that a maximum of 41 flights could be operated within noise limits regardless of the mix of aircraft.