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Still Not Off the Ground

A three-year noise study poses the latest delay in plans for a new Burbank Airport terminal, which the FAA first sought in 1980. Neighbors hope the results confirm the need for an official curfew, but U.S. approval remains doubtful.

May 05, 2000|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To local air travelers, Burbank Airport maintains the aura of a small community facility where you can still walk a few hundred feet from the flight tarmac to the parking lot.

But the airport is playing an increasingly important role in the regional air traffic system, serving an estimated 4.7 million passengers a year in Ventura and northern Los Angeles counties.

Passengers see it as a convenient alternative to Los Angeles International Airport. But fulfilling its role as a major regional airport hinges on construction of a new and bigger terminal--which has been vigorously resisted by community residents who have fought the project to a standstill.

To break the deadlock, residents and airport officials alike are focusing on a $4-million federal noise study that could force the airport to become a quieter neighbor while still allowing the expansion.

But achieving their goal--a mandatory curfew on late-night flights--requires the approval of the Federal Aviation Administration. And if history is any guide, the agency could be their most formidable opponent yet.

"We don't want to prejudge any community's concerns," said FAA spokesman Paul Turk. "But we have a federal and legal framework, and we warn people the statutory standards are very high, and it's a difficult process to prove your case."

In resisting local noise curbs, the FAA and airlines say they are working to preserve the efficiency of the national air transportation system--already subject to disruptions from weather and other factors.

A decade ago, Congress passed the Airport Noise and Control Act to stop the proliferation of noise rules at commercial airports, which was creating a patchwork of conflicting regulations for airlines.

A portion of that act, now contained in Part 161 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, empowered airports to conduct studies that could lead to special FAA-approved noise rules for individual airports.

Since then, nearly a dozen airports have considered or started so-called Part 161 studies, but only one airport has submitted a completed review to the FAA. Moreover, the agency has not approved any curfews since the noise act was passed in 1990.

Risk That Talks Will Return to Square 1

Burbank city officials say that without a curfew, they are unlikely to approve a new terminal. Faced with that reality, the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority agreed last month to conduct the three-year Part 161 study--putting the brakes, at least temporarily, on the $300-million terminal project.

In making that decision, however, the authority took a risk that three years from now, the FAA will reject the curfew and that negotiations on the new terminal will be back to Square 1.

"If the FAA denies noise relief to residents around the airport, then they are going to have to accept that it may be another 25 years before a replacement terminal is built," said Charles Lombardo, an Airport Authority member from Burbank. "Then, instead of a 70-year-old terminal our kids will be arguing about a 95-year-old building."

Chris Holden, an authority member from Pasadena, conceded that the chances of the FAA approving a curfew are "very slim."

"But we want to pursue all of the appropriate avenues to make the airport as quiet as possible. We want to do it because it's the right thing to do," he said.

To Burbank and Los Angeles residents living south and west of the airport, the curfew is the best way to limit noise at a facility where the number of passengers is bound to grow with construction of a new terminal.

"This is our only assurance [that] we will be able to control the negative impact on the people who live near that airport," said Ted McConkey, a longtime airport critic and former Burbank city councilman.

He and others want caps on the number of flights allowed and a mandatory curfew from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. But airlines vow to dig in their heels to oppose any limits on airport operations.

"It's like a traffic ticket," said Neil Bennett, western regional director of the Air Transport Assn., which represents major carriers. "You pay the fine or fight the ticket. In this case, the fine [for the airlines] is a lot more than just Burbank."

In recent years, the city of Burbank has been at odds with its airport partners--pushing for noise controls that were resisted by Glendale and Pasadena.

Airport Authority spokesman Victor Gill said that the tri-city agency is now committed to imposing a mandatory nighttime curfew, but that the precise details are yet to be determined.

"The consultant has been directed to report back at the beginning of June to recommend the specific noise restrictions that will be studied," Gill said. "Beyond that, it will be conducted in four phases and take approximately three years."

Authority President Carl Meseck acknowledged that the airlines will argue against a mandatory curfew.

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