LONG BEACH — The City Council has ordered a study of airline safety at Long Beach Airport after listening to pleas Tuesday that it ban flights by Alaska Airlines, recently hit with one of the largest safety-related fines in commercial aviation history.
Though pushed to do so by two council members, the board did not ban flights by Alaska Airlines, which last week was fined $600,755 by the Federal Aviation Administration for a series of safety violations over a three-month period in 1984. The airline has appealed the fine and disputes the FAA finding.
The council voted unanimously after a one-hour hearing Tuesday night to have its staff investigate all airlines using the city's airport to determine if any have been fined by the FAA or have a record of safety-related problems.
The meeting was the start of the council's program to hold meetings in neighborhoods around the city, and more than 300 persons, many of them airport opponents, packed the auditorium of Hughes Junior High School, in the shadow of the airport flight path.
FAA Prerogative City Atty. Robert Parkin advised the council not to act on the ban, saying the city has no jurisdiction over airline safety, which is the prerogative of the FAA. The airline also has been criticized by the council because it continues to fly Boeing 727s, despite city pressure to abandon that plane for quieter jets.
Speaking out against the reported safety violations, Councilman Marc Wilder told the council it should take steps to ban Alaska Airlines until the FAA dispute is settled. He and Councilman Edd Tuttle, a longtime critic of airport noise, were repeatedly applauded by the audience.
"This is a matter of extreme concern to me," Wilder said. "I've always been a supporter of the airport, but that support has come only with the clear understanding that the airlines would operate up to safety standards."
Parkin, however, told the council it could take an airline to court on a safety issue only if the FAA failed to act. The Alaska Airlines matter does not warrant such action because the federal agency had levied a fine, he said.
Councilman Thomas Clark echoed Parkin, saying "there's no use in kidding ourselves that we have some jurisdiction in this. Only the FAA has jurisdiction."
However, Tuttle, in whose district the meeting was held, expressed frustration about the city's lack of power to control operations at the airport.
"We should have some jurisdiction, some ability to keep out air carriers that may pose a safety risk," Tuttle said. "The time may come, aside from the noise issue, that we should take a look at attempting to ban Alaska Airlines from our airport."
Noise Concerns Tuttle admitted, however, that he wants a ban on Alaska Airlines in part because of concern about noise. According to monitoring tests conducted by the city, Alaska Airlines has been the worst violator of airport noise laws.
But the issue of safety, Tuttle said, seems even more troubling. "I want to guarantee to the citizens of this community that if they have to live with airport noise, they can also live with some degree of safety," he said.
The council first became aware of FAA-reported problems with Alaska Airlines last week when the agency levied its fine. The Seattle-based airline had more than 4,000 violations between March and May involving pilots and other personnel who failed to take required refresher courses in safety training, according to Richard Meyer, an FAA spokesman in Seattle.
Air Alaska officials say their personnel received the proper training and that the problem was caused by record-keeping errors. The training programs were repeated within days after the FAA notified the airline of the violations in May, 1984, Raymond Vecci, Alaska Airline's vice president for planning, said in a Tuesday letter to the council. The airline will appeal the fine, Vecci said.
"We believe the size of the proposed penalty is excessive in view of the type of charges and the corrective actions taken by the airline," Vecci said in the letter.
Meyer said the fine is "one of the largest I've heard of," surpassed only by a more than $1-million penalty levied against American Airlines for the 1979 crash of a DC-10 in Chicago. That fine was later reduced to about $500,000 by the FAA.