LONG BEACH — The number of airline flights at Long Beach Airport could increase fourfold to more than 100 a day if the city continues to try to limit flights by fighting in federal court, rather than leading an effort to build a new regional airport elsewhere, City Auditor Robert Fronke has concluded.
The City Council "has not been realistic in assuming that activity at the municipal airport could be controled by the use of legal maneuvering, . . . considering the continuous pressure for more air traffic in the Los Angeles basin," Fronke said in an interview last week.
"We're not going to stop at (the current) 26 flights or 36 flights or 50 flights or 100 flights unless we get actively involved in regional air traffic planning. Unless we do, we're going to be a junior LAX," Fronke said.
Fronke made his comments Thursday following release of his annual operational audit of the airport. It will be considered by the City Council on Tuesday.
A Break With Strategy
Fronke's comments break with the City Council's strategy to limit flights with a noise ordinance it hopes will be upheld by a federal judge after a trial next fall.
Fronke said that city officials should be establishing political alliances with other local cities and counties while pressing for development of a new regional airport. Long Beach has not been a leader in forcing that issue, he said.
"The city must take a strong, active leadership role in developing and adopting a master plan for the entire region, or it may face the loss of what local control it now has over its airport operations," Fronke concluded in the audit.
In response, Mayor Ernie Kell said Long Beach has been actively involved with past unsuccessful efforts by a regional planning body, the Southern California Assn. of Governments, to meet the national demand for more flights into Southern California.
"SCAG spent about $12 million or $13 million looking at the regional airport approach and came up empty handed," Kell said. "It seems like everything they looked at put the noise in somebody else's backyard. It's an old, old issue."
Three Sites Recommended
After four years of study, the association of governments in 1982 recommended three possible regional airport sites--on landfill off the Long Beach and Los Angeles harbors breakwater, at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Orange County and at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in northern San Diego County. All sites were eventually shelved in the face of strong opposition.
Kell said the Long Beach council has lobbied its congressmen for funding for a new regional airport study and for legislation that would give local governments more control over their airports. (Orange County is awaiting federal funding for a new study of its regional airport options.)
And contrary to Fronke's appraisal, Kell said the city's federal court effort seems its strongest weapon against imposition of unwanted flights.
"We're optimistic," Kell said.
Airlines sued the city in 1983--essentially saying the noise ordinance set arbitrary flight limits. The airlines, seeking greater airport access, have won a series of court skirmishes that have allowed flights to be increased from 15 to 26 a day. Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration are pushing for at least 41 flights daily, while the city maintains that a maximum of 32 should be allowed if noise is lowered to state standards.
Demand May Nearly Double
Fronke's audit says current studies project that regional air travel demand will nearly double by the year 2000 from the about 54 million passengers in 1986 to 100 million.
And, the auditor says, regional planners and managers at the other four commercial airports in the Los Angeles basin expect Long Beach to carry a much greater share of the region's air traffic load in future years.
Long Beach Airport accommodated 1.12 million passengers last year, compared to 3.02 million at Burbank, 4.06 million at John Wayne in Costa Mesa, 4.25 million at Ontario and 41.42 million at Los Angeles International, the audit said.
In addition, far fewer people in Long Beach neighborhoods are subjected to aircraft noise exceeding state limits than in neighborhoods near any of the other four airports, according to the audit. That will "undoubtedly be considered" when planning allocation of additional flights for the region, the report said.
Others Plan Expansions
Fronke also reported that while the other airports have constructed or have plans for major terminal expansions to handle increased demand, Long Beach plans no expansion.
"Given the ability of (Long Beach) to handle additional commercial flights, the magnitude of the projected demand, and the relatively small flight increases that the city has permitted, . . . the city may continue to be frustrated in its efforts to limit commercial air traffic growth by larger regional and national priorities," the audit said.
Councilman Thomas Clark, whose 4th District is in the airport flight path, questioned why Fronke "is getting into policy statements" in a review of airport operations--"especially when he isn't saying anything (new). He isn't laying out the mechanics of how you go about doing this."
Fronke responded that as city auditor for a decade, he has "never been just a numbers cruncher." His airport audit addresses the rationale that underlies operations at the airport, Fronke said.