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Residents question proposed fine increases for curfew and noise violations

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Courtesy LB Airport
This table shows Long Beach Airport’s proposed noise-ordinance amendment violation-fee increases. “Alternative Enforcement Procedure” refers to action by the City prosecutor.

Imposing harsher penalties to curb unwanted behavior might seem straightforward, but it’s not that simple, according to some Long Beach residents.

The Long Beach Airport is considering asking the Long Beach City Council to pass a noise-ordinance amendment that would significantly increase penalties for airlines that break curfew or otherwise exceed noise allowances.

However, last week, during two community meetings designed to solicit input on the matter, some residents spoke against such action, citing the risk of losing the noise ordinance altogether, especially in light of recent legal action by JetBlue Airlines.

At the second meeting on Feb. 10 at the Expo Arts Center in Bixby Knolls, Airport Director Jess Romo presented to about 50 attendees, including councilmembers Al Austin II and Roberto Uranga and Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, an overview of the existing noise ordinance— which has not been amended since its 1995 adoption— and the airport’s proposed changes.

Chief among the changes: an increase in fines for violating the 10pm-to-7am curfew and an adjustment to flight timeslot utilization.

Proposed fines would significantly increase the current $100 for a third violation and $300 for four or more, to a rising scale of $2,500 for the first violation to $10,000 each for 11 or more violations. More than 20 violations in a 24-month period would result in an airline losing flight slots.

Romo cited the substantial increase in late-night flight operations since 2016 as a reason for the fine amendments. He also noted that the 1995 penalty structure is outdated and considerably less than fees charged by nearby airports such as John Wayne.

“If we don’t do anything, [!] we don’t expect to see any change in behavior, whether it’s JetBlue or any other carrier,” he said. “Because as long as they pay the fines, they’ll operate as they’ve been operating.”

Romo stressed that the proposed changes are distinct from JetBlue’s recent legal action appealing the terms of its “consent decree” — an agreement with the City regarding its violations— alleging that the penalties assessed by the airport and its proposed amendments are unreasonable.

“Our endeavor to look at the proposed noise-ordinance amendments is entirely separate from the JetBlue administrative appeal, which focuses on certain types of curfew exemptions that they are appealing to the City,” Romo said, noting that JetBlue’s final appeal to the city council will conclude in March.

However, some residents disagreed, noting that JetBlue has incurred most of the late-night curfew violations and so the amendments specifically address that airline’s behavior.

Rae Gabelich, resident and former city council member, also expressed concern that JetBlue is targeting the ordinance itself.

“I think we have to be very careful,” she said. “We need to refocus on [!] the possibility of our losing our noise ordinance.”

Gabelich noted that when the consent decree was agreed upon in 2003, JetBlue had 30 violations and paid fines totaling $90,000. The airline’s growing violations, she said, have steadily increased its total fines from $366,000 in 2015 to $618,000 in 2016 to $1.2 million in 2017.

“They’re not getting to be better neighbors,” she said of JetBlue. “They’re looking for a way to challenge [!] our noise ordinance.”

Gabelich also cited a statement by JetBlue asserting that the proposed amendments violate Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules and the 1990 Airport Noise and Capacity Act (ANCA), under which the noise ordinance is “grandfathered.”

“I’m going to assume that the City Council [!] will vote ‘no’ on [JetBlue’s] appeal on the interpretation of the verbiage that’s in the noise ordinance,” Gabelich said. “But once that appeal is done [!], then [JetBlue] has the opportunity to go to the courts.”

She suggested that the airport therefore delay any further public action on the amendments.

“I just encourage you to move so very cautiously on this,” Gabelich said. “I also urge you to let [!] the JetBlue appeal play out in the courts. [!] I would ask [the FAA] for not only a written opinion letter but some kind of assurance that they would stand by our side should we be challenged in a court of law.”

Kevin McAchren, a resident and small-business owner in the Long Beach Airport, also concluded that the problem was really about JetBlue.

“We do not need to change the ordinance,” he said. “We are likely to lose local control of the airport. [!] I think it’s basically a JetBlue problem here.”

He suggested that if the City could work with JetBlue on the terms of the consent decree, it would address the entire concern.

“With the vehicle of the consent decree, we can probably get a little better resolution to this whole issue than opening up the ordinance [!], which has served us well for 23 years,” McAchren said.

Another resident, and admitted frequent flyer of both Southwest and JetBlue, noted that the ordinance’s language allows the airport to get rid of JetBlue altogether.

“We should not fear the loss of JetBlue,” he said.

Other residents suggested generally that the airport should incentivize compliance, rather than impose harsher penalties, and levy more proportional fines consistent with the operating costs of the airlines.

Romo assured attendees that the airport is still collecting input before proceeding with FAA assurances and an amendment for the city council to consider, saying that nothing would likely change until late 2018.

“This is going to be a very deliberative process,” he said.

Airport attorney Lori Ballance concurred.

“We are looking at this very carefully and very cautiously,” she said. “It certainly will not proceed without getting whatever assurances we can along the way.”

Romo also explained another proposed amendment to the Flight Allocation Procedures Resolution on how airlines utilize their timeslot allocations, which is separate but related to the noise ordinance.

He noted that some airlines have been engaging in anti-competitive “slot-sitting” on their allocations, preventing other airlines from potentially utilizing those times.

In his Aug. 9, 2017 memo to the city manager, Romo connected this problem to the curfew-enforcement problem.

“This is particularly problematic with the recent increase in demand for flight slots at the Airport and the increase in curfew violations by incumbent air carriers failing to fully utilize their slot allocations,” he wrote.

However, at the meeting, Romo noted that recent increased competition among airlines, especially since the addition of Southwest Airlines in 2016, has resulted in more efficient use of the 50 slots.

“It’s not a problem right now, but that doesn’t mean it might not become a problem down the road,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that, if we have a slot, that [an airline] is using it efficiently, and if [they’re] not, then we need to pull it back, or have the ability to pull it back.”

The proposed slot-utilization requirement would change from a particular number of flights required per week— either four or 30 depending on the type of carrier— to monthly, quarterly and annual capacity-utilization averages ranging from 60 to 85 percent.

At least one resident argued that timeslot efficiency is not in the community’s best interest.

Given concerns about the proposed amendments— both the fines and time slots—O’Donnell’s brief statement during the meeting may be most apt.

“We want to make sure we do the right thing,” he said, “which might be . . . not doing anything.”

For response to questions on the airport’s proposed amendments, email [email protected]

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Serving Bixby Knolls, California Heights, Los Cerritos, Wrigley and Signal Hill
Residents question proposed fine increases for curfew and noise violations