Champagne corks popped in the skies over El Segundo this week as MGM Grand Air launched a much-heralded service offering airborne opulence from Los Angeles to New York.
There was little celebration on the ground, however, as the El Segundo City Council considered its options in its fight to ground MGM. The airline has started the first scheduled service out of Los Angeles International Airport's Imperial Terminal, which the city has been trying to shut down for years because of jet noise.
The City Council met for two hours in a special executive session with City Atty. Leland Dolley, but council members declined to say afterward whether the city will sue to stop MGM. Dolley said a decision would be made in the near future.
On Sept. 4, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jerry K. Fields denied the city's request for a temporary restraining order to stop MGM from beginning operations Tuesday. In addition, Fields denied the city's request for a hearing date on a preliminary injunction against LAX and MGM.
Dolley had asked Fields to bar the airline from Imperial because the review process of the airline's environmental impact on the area has not been completed. He also argued that the California Environmental Quality Control Act requires a new overall environmental study for LAX because the MGM addition will raise the amount of airport passengers above a 40-million-per-year level stipulated in the airport's General Plan.
Fields denied the request at the urging of lawyers for the airport and MGM, who said state laws are preempted by federal laws requiring airports to permit airlines to operate if they meet safety guidelines. The lawyers also argued that the 40-million stipulation is only an approximate limit and said the airport is taking steps to comply with environmental regulations.
"This was a total victory for MGM," said Terry Avchen, a lawyer for the airline, which currently flies two flights a day to New York and plans to introduce flights to London next year. "We see no legal impediment for the continued success of MGM Grand Air."
An MGM spokesman said the luxury flights, which can carry only 33 passengers, have been averaging 27 per flight in the first week, higher than projections for the service that charges $818 one-way to New York.
As the city contemplates its next move, a stumbling block remains: Last December, Mayor Jack Siadek told LAX commissioners that El Segundo favored the MGM project as the least noisy use for Imperial Terminal.
He has since taken considerable political heat and changed his position, saying MGM officials broke promises they had made to him about trying to curtail aircraft noise.
But angry residents of El Segundo and Siadek's political opponents said the damage is done, pointing out that MGM lawyers used Siadek's initial support of MGM in their argument against the temporary restraining order.
"It's going to be awfully difficult for a court to take the city seriously after the mayor said the MGM deal was perfectly all right," said Nestor Synadinos, a leader of the city's Group United for Residential Rights and frequent critic of City Hall.
Siadek was in Sacramento on city business and could not be reached for comment. Dolley would not say whether the mayor's action would hamper legal efforts, but lawyers for LAX and several airport commissioners said it has weakened the city's case.
"I couldn't believe it," said Airport Commissioner Samuel Greenberg, who listened to Siadek and other city officials deliver a lengthy attack on the MGM project at a LAX board meeting last month. "He came in with a total opposite story. I don't know what went on between (the city and MGM) but I don't think they would be sustained in any court."
The airport board will rule on MGM's application for final operating approval within the next month. Despite El Segundo's opposition, Greenberg said MGM will most probably be granted permanent use of Imperial Terminal.
"So much of this protesting is done for the benefit of the residents to show that the officials are against aircraft noise," Greenberg said. "I don't see why we would deny MGM."
City Manager Arthur Jones said there has been no increase in noise complaints since MGM began service.
"We always get complaints about noise," he said. "I don't think people can tell MGM planes from other planes."