LONG BEACH — The planes are powered by turbo props, not jets. The number of seats amount to no more than a few dozen instead of a few hundred.
They fly to places such as San Diego, Bakersfield or San Luis Obispo and they have names like Qwest Air, United Express, Trans World Express and American Eagle.
They are the commuter airlines. A potential boon to air travelers and a bane to noise-weary residents, two of them won an all-clear this week from a federal judge to start service at Long Beach Municipal Airport with 15 flights daily by April 1.
U.S. District Judge Laughlin Waters will decide later this month whether to accept a plan to dole out another 10 flights a day among the commuter airlines.
The total of 25 flights a day is only one flight less than is allowed by court order for the major airlines at the airport. Together, that brings to 51 the total number of commercial flights at the airport when the judge's order is fully implemented, or 102 takeoffs and landings a day.
But even the city attorney's office, which has fought to keep commuter airlines out of the airport to lessen noise, draws a distinction between the two types of airlines. Deputy City Atty. Roger Freeman said commuter aircraft are smaller, lighter and generally quieter than the major carriers' jetliners.
The commuter airlines argue that their planes sound about the same or are quieter than the many propeller-driven general aviation aircraft flown in and out of the airport by private pilots.
After refusal by the city to allow commuter flights, a new airline that wanted to start service based in Long Beach, Qwest Air, sued the city last year for the right to fly. As a result, Waters granted a temporary injunction last month to allow 25 commuter flights a day distributed among Qwest Air and other commuter airlines.
On Monday, Waters accepted a city plan to grant 10 flights to Qwest Air, owned by Qwest Commuter Corp., and five flights to United Express, operated by West-Air Commuter Inc. of Fresno. They must start service by April 1 and use aircraft that have passed city noise inspections, Freeman said.
In addition, Waters told the city to prepare a plan to allocate another 10 flights a day for his review Feb. 22. Freeman said the city intends to give another two flights each to Qwest Air and United Express, plus two each to Trans World Express, owned by Resort Commuter Inc. in Santa Ana, and American Eagle, owned by Wings West of San Luis Obispo. The remaining two flights probably will be given away in a drawing, Freeman said.
Waters decided to bring Qwest Air's lawsuit to trial on March 8, when the judge will hear another lawsuit brought by a group of major airlines. In their suit, the major carriers contend that the city is unreasonably restricting the number of flights at the airport through its 1981 airport noise ordinance. That law limited the number of major airline flights to 15 a day and use of the airport to the quietest of jets.
Waters last year issued a preliminary injunction for the major airlines, too, that brought their total number of flights to 26 a day.
For Qwest Air, which originally brought the commuter airline lawsuit, Water's acceptance of the city's division of the flights will mean far less than the 25 flights a day the airline wanted, said airline President Steve Lay. But at least the airline will get off the ground.
Lay said Qwest Air will start service March 1 to San Diego and possibly other destinations.
Roger S. Greene, Qwest Air attorney, said the airline should have been given more flights because of an "immediate need to begin frequent service out of Long Beach," the hub of its operations.
Greene said that Qwest should have received extra consideration because it will operate 19-passenger twin-prop aircraft that are quieter than planes used by other commuter lines. Qwest's West-German made Dornier 228 was the second quietest from among eight aircraft models tested by the city.
Robert Span, attorney for West-Air's United Express, said he is satisfied with the initial allocation of five flights.
"We're pleased that WestAir, after two years, is finally going to be able to fly in and out of Long Beach Airport. We hope there will be additional flights," Span said.
WestAir's 30-passenger Embraer Brasilia airplanes will start service to San Jose and Sacramento by April 1, he said. Sacramento is a hub for United Airlines, which is affiliated with the commuter airline.
Waters said that when he decides Feb. 22 whether to approve the city's plan for division of the remaining 10 commuter flights, he said he will also consider a motion by the major airlines to drop a residents' group fighting airport noise--Long Beach Houses Under Stress and Hazard (HUSH)--as a party in the case.
HUSH filed as a friend of the court to come to the aid of the city in trying to ward off more major air carrier flights at the airport. HUSH attorney Michael Thurman said the residents need to remain represented because the other parties to the suit--the airlines, city and school district--have different interests.
Residents "would be able to present firsthand evidence of (the effects of) having airplanes descend directly over their houses," he said, adding that would include testimony about unburned fuel landing in yards, air pollution produced by airplanes, the stress of living near an airport and fear of aircraft disasters.