LONG BEACH — In an action that raised objections from both homeowners and airlines, the City Council this week approved the first fee increases at Long Beach Airport in five years.
Intended to bring the airport's operating costs in line with its income and erase losses of $160,000 a month, the rate increases will affect passengers directly and indirectly. Travelers leaving cars in long-term parking will have to pay $9 a day instead of $6, and ultimately, the commercial airlines are expected to pass on the costs of increased landing and gate fees.
"I think what we're doing is reasonable," said Councilman Tom Clark, whose 4th District borders the municipal airport.
Neighboring homeowners, who have long complained about aircraft noise, generally supported an increase in airline fees. But some argued the increases weren't big enough or were too selective. Airport neighbors also protested that, as part of the financing package, the city planned to accept federal funds for capital projects. That, they warned, might mean less local control and more federal control of the airport's use.
Would Curb Noise
Consulting a city attorney, councilmen assured the homeowners that such was not the case. The airport is subject to the same federal regulations, regardless of whether it accepts federal money. Moreover, council members stressed that the federal funds would be earmarked for maintenance and repair of airport facilities, and not for their expansion, which is vehemently opposed by nearby residents.
The city has rallied behind the residents and is now in court, defending its attempt to limit the number of daily airport flights in order to curb noise problems.
Eager to expand their Long Beach service, the seven commercial airlines that use the airport have sued the city, contending the flight limits represent an unfair restriction on interstate commerce. A federal judge agreed in a ruling that is being appealed by the city, and court negotiations are under way for a possible compromise on the number of flights allowed at the local air field.
Richard Hannan, representing the airlines, suggested that the city strike a lease and operating agreement with the carriers that would contain a built-in rate-setting mechanism, rather than adopt the new fee schedule. He also objected to the fact that the city charges higher landing fees for aircraft at night than during the day. Airport officials justify the difference, saying they spend more money monitoring night-time flights for noise.
Hannan further complained that the city was incorporating the legal costs of defending itself against the airlines in its tally of airport expenses. That comment won a council retort that if the airlines weren't suing the city, there wouldn't be any legal expenses to recover. The city has spent $1 million in the past two years on airport related legal fees.
The rate increases, which take effect immediately, cover private aircraft as well commercial. For instance, owners of non-commercial planes based in Long Beach will have to pay $150 a year, rather than $100, for landing privileges.
To keep pace with rising operating costs, the new rate schedule provides for automatic, annual increases tied to rises in the consumer price index.
Even with the additional fees, airport managers say income will not cover such long-term costs as depreciation and capital improvements. A financial package to absorb those expenses will be proposed within the next year.
Paul Schmidt of the community-wide Long Beach Area Citizens Involved urged the council to not only charge rates that would cover all airport expenses, but would make a profit for the city as well. He also suggested that income from airport property rented for non-aviation purposes be diverted to the city's General Fund, a move city officials say is impossible because of restrictions on land originally purchased with the help of federal aviation funds.