LONG BEACH — In a move that could undercut city efforts to limit airline flights at Long Beach Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration has rejected key provisions of a new airport noise ordinance.
While the FAA rejection has no immediate effect, it will be forwarded to the federal judge who is hearing a 4-year-old case brought by airlines that have sought greater access to the airport.
U.S. District Judge Laughlin E. Waters of Los Angeles has said he has serious questions about the legality of the ordinance and will place much weight on the FAA's analysis of it.
Support Data Held Lacking
The FAA, which has pressed for a quick increase in daily flights from 18 to at least 41, said the city lacks adequate technical and economic data to support its new ordinance.
Specifically, it said that while the city has carefully analyzed the beneficial effect of the new law on the airport's neighbors, it has failed almost completely to consider the economic impact of its noise-control program on airlines and interstate commerce.
As a result, there is no basis for the FAA to judge whether the new law balances "both local needs and the needs of the national air transportation system," the federal agency said in a report released by the city on Tuesday.
But in the same report, the FAA agreed in concept with the city's goal to tie future flight increases to the noise level in nearby residential neighborhoods. It also found no problem in concept with ordinance provisions that would place stiff fines on noisy aircraft or exclude them from the airport. And the agency said it is willing to consider new supporting data from the city.
"I'm disappointed. It would have been nicer if they'd approved everything. But they haven't totally disapproved it either," Mayor Ernie Kell said. "They're just asking for more information, and we will be submitting more information in an attempt to work with them."
However, Kell and other city officials said they thought the 1,200 pages of supporting information submitted to the FAA with the city ordinance do provide a strong legal foundation for the law.
And Lee L. Blackman, the city's lead lawyer in airport matters, said he thought it was peculiar that the FAA is only now expressing strong concerns about supporting documentation. He noted that the FAA was directly involved in the 20-month study that led to City Council adoption in July of the new noise ordinance.
"If it had been their desire to have a special kind of economic impact assessment, it's surprising to me that they did not bother to explain those requirements during the course of this process," Blackman said.
He said that the FAA is now requiring the city to show that its ordinance is reasonable, "while we believe the legal burden is on those who would challenge the restrictions to show that they are unreasonable."
Cost Comparison Urged
The FAA says in its report, however, that it encouraged the city-appointed task force studying airport noise to compare the economic costs of different levels of airport use.
And, while the task force considered the effect of unlimited airport use, the city "either ignored or gave short shrift to other reasonable comparative alternatives," the FAA said.
Whether the city has an adequate technical basis on which to restrict airport noise and flights has been argued in court for years.
In 1983, Waters struck down the city's noise ordinance, saying its flight-allocation system was arbitrary. The judge then allowed an increase from 15 to 18 flights and gave the city time to draft a legally defensible set of noise rules.
The City Council, at the urging of and with financial support from the FAA, appointed the task force to come up with data on which new regulations could be based.
But the council last year partially rejected the task force's main recommendation: that flights be allowed to increase in three increments from 18 to 41 if airlines can stay within a state-endorsed limit for noise in nearby residential neighborhoods.
Gradual Flight Increase
The council adopted the state noise standard, but defied the FAA by endorsing a more gradual increase to a 32-flight limit.
Since then, the city has lost a series of court battles before Waters. In September, the judge refused to implement the new airport noise ordinance, and a month later he ordered an increase in flights from 18 to 26 even before trial on the ordinance's legality, which may not occur for another year.
A federal appellate court blocked implementation of the eight new flights and is now reviewing Waters' order.
In its 14-page report, the FAA examines all key provisions of the city ordinance and disapproves of most of them.
For example, the agency says it "does not take issue" with the city's goal of strictly limiting noise in airport-area neighborhoods, but it faults the city for placing responsibility for meeting this goal solely on the airlines.