After nearly four weeks of testimony and submission of thousands of documents into evidence, the trial to determine the number of flights at Long Beach Municipal Airport has closed with the judge being asked to decide a fundamental question:
How much noise is too much noise?
If U. S. District Judge Laughlin Waters sides with the 13 air carriers that sued the city of Long Beach, he might throw out the city's aircraft noise ordinance and order more flights at the airport.
Attorneys for the city say such a ruling would mean residents would have to endure more noise.
Or, if Waters follows the reasoning of the city and the Long Beach Unified School District, he would lift orders forcing the city to allow 51 airline and commuter flights a day and let the city's aircraft noise law take effect.
The result of that ruling, airline attorneys say, would be fewer flights in hopes of cutting down on noise.
No matter what Waters decides, both sides have indicated that an appeal is likely.
The trial in downtown Los Angeles drew to a polite close Tuesday instead of the snappy finale that had been expected. Waters barred the testimony of residents of Long Beach Homes Under Stress and Hazard, officially known as L.B. HUSH.
Waters ruled last week that HUSH has no standing in the case after receiving a copy of the group's bylaws, which state it will have no members. Even though the group hastily amended its rules, it was too late to make up for the error in court.
HUSH attorney Mike Thurman said the U. S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to intercede and the trial was nearly over by the time he could file with the U. S. Supreme Court.
Barbara Shoag, HUSH activist, said that by excluding the group, Waters missed hearing "from the people who live with the planes, with the noise, the pollution, the safety concerns and the quality of life."
With HUSH off the case, the trial boiled down to the airline's contention that the city's noise law was concocted to prevent an expansion of commercial and commuter flights versus the city's view that it has a right to set limits and exercise control at its airport.
The city's airport noise law was not born of "legitimate balancing of this concern for noise, but rather it was an attempt to make something stick," said John Lyons, an attorney for America West Airlines. The city, he said, wanted a law "to keep air carriers out of that airport no matter what."
City documents and witnesses showed the city could handle far more flights than it does now without significant adverse noise impact, Lyons said. At the same time, he said, the city has made no attempt to soundproof schools or adjust takeoff patterns to disperse aircraft noise.
Under Waters' temporary orders, 26 commercial and 25 commuter flights are authorized for the airport every day. The number of flights under the city's law would vary, depending on how much cumulative noise, both in loudness and length, is produced during the day from aircraft passing overhead.
The outcome of the case has far-reaching implications, Lyons said. If Long Beach can "get away with" unreasonable restrictions on flights, "then we may have other airports . . . that will try the same thing."
Don Hibner, an attorney for American Airlines, said that by limiting the number of flights, the city has lost more than $100 million a year of additional economic activity.
Judith Meadow, who represented Westair Inc. and other commuter airlines in the case, said the testimony showed that "the city had a policy to just say no" to commuter airlines that wanted to fly into the airport. Commuter aircraft, she said, are often quieter than private planes which have unlimited use of the airport.
Lee A. Blackman, an attorney for the city, said that Long Beach has a right to regulate its airport for the protection and comfort of its residents.
More flights mean more noise, he said. And while there is no scientific way to determine how much noise is too much noise, Blackman said, the city has tried to adopt a reasonable standard.
He minimized both the importance of the case to commercial airlines and the alleged economic impact. If additional flights are not allowed in Long Beach, he said, they may end up at any of the other airports in Los Angeles County.
And the loss of additional economic benefits has been voluntarily given up by the city to provide a better quality of life for its residents, Blackman added.