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FAA Leaves Long Beach Limits Intact

The decision on airport noise restrictions and flight caps, coupled with an earlier deal at John Wayne Airport, puts more pressure on LAX.

May 03, 2003|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

The Federal Aviation Administration has endorsed a deal between Long Beach officials and several airlines that leaves flight limits in place at the city's tiny Art Deco airport, effectively eliminating the facility's ability to relieve overcrowding at Los Angeles International.

In a letter to Long Beach Airport Manager Chris Kunze, federal regulators said that a 1995 federal court settlement capping the number of commercial takeoffs there at 41 per day is legal.

The decision, announced Friday, follows the FAA's approval earlier this year of plans to maintain local noise limits at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, but to permit the passenger load there to grow between now and 2011.

Airport operators in Long Beach and Santa Ana had feared the FAA might put an end to noise limits enacted at both facilities in the mid-1980s, citing a 1990 law that restricts how airports can institute flight caps.

"This is very significant. We've never seen confirmation" of the the noise ordinance in writing by the FAA, said Michael Mais, a Long Beach deputy city attorney. "This allows the city to avoid costly, time-consuming litigation" and to continue to limit air traffic.

The FAA's reaffirmation of noise restrictions at the two facilities puts more pressure on Los Angeles city officials to accommodate a projected doubling of passengers in the region by 2025. LAX will be forced to accept a majority of the 167 million passengers expected to use 10 Southern California airports, unless officials can persuade travelers -- and airlines -- to go elsewhere.

Friday's announcement resulted from a settlement between the city and several airlines that put an end to a dispute over valuable flight "slots" at the 80-year-old Long Beach Airport.

The settlement does not completely rule out flight increases, however. The terms of the deal require airport officials to conduct a noise study once the airport reaches its limit of 41 daily flights, which will happen in June.

The study, which will use data collected from June to October, will determine how much noise the 41 flights generate and whether additional flights could operate under the ordinance. Depending on the study's findings, the number of slots allocated at the airport each year could grow.

The FAA's letter allows the city to implement the terms of a February settlement with JetBlue, American Airlines and Alaska Airlines that reallocated several Long Beach Airport slots. A dispute over the slots arose after city officials gave the facility's remaining 27 slots to upstart JetBlue.

JetBlue opened its West Coast hub at Long Beach Airport in summer 2001. It provides service to New York, Washington, Oakland, Salt Lake City and Las Vegas from Long Beach, and is adding service to Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale next week.

After watching the low-cost carrier gain a foothold at the tiny airport on lucrative routes, other airlines asked to offer service at the previously underused facility. American requested four daily flights to Chicago and New York in early 2002. Alaska followed suit, asking for three slots for flights to Seattle.

American, which threatened to sue if it didn't receive permanent slots, asserted last May that the airport's agreement to give JetBlue exclusive two-year use of 27 slots violated federal and state law.

Both American and Alaska demanded administrative hearings on the matter. To avoid litigation, the city started negotiations last summer with the carriers and the FAA. Under the terms of the agreement announced Friday, JetBlue will return five of its 27 slots to the city, which then will give three to American and two to Alaska.

Carriers and city officials applauded terms of the deal, although a JetBlue spokesman said the carrier "begrudgingly" decided to accept the agreement. "Rather than yield to threats to bring this into the courts -- perhaps for years, which would disrupt our operations and not be good for customers -- we agreed to settle the matter," said Robert Land, JetBlue's vice president for government affairs.

American is using its existing four permanent slots at Long Beach, along with four temporary slots, to provide flights to Dallas-Fort Worth and Kennedy International Airport in New York. The carrier will now have seven permanent slots at Long Beach. Alaska Airlines said it eventually will launch service between Long Beach and its home in Seattle, though a schedule hasn't been set yet. The carrier has until February to begin using its two slots.

City officials were ecstatic about the agreement, saying that it will go a long way toward ameliorating residents' concerns about airport expansion. "Burbank and John Wayne can only dream about the kind of settlement reached today," said Long Beach Councilman Dennis Carroll. "This provides us the rare ability of self-determination -- we've been trying to strike a balance between the airport and its commercial life and the quality of life in our neighborhoods."

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Times staff writer James F. Peltz contributed to this report.

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