Eric Sheng, noise specialist, works in his space over looking the Long Beach Airport as he keeps track of 18 noise monitors place in and around the airport as planes come in and out of the airport in Long Beach CA. on Sept. 3, 2013. Long Beach Airport employs three full-time people to monitor noise levels at and near the runway.
(Photo by Thomas R. Cordova - Daily Breeze)
Once each quarter, JetBlue Airways writes a hefty check to the Friends of the Long Beach Public Library. But the reason is not necessarily altruism.
Among major commercial airports, Long Beach Airport is unique in its noise policies. The airport and the city require airplanes to operate unusually quietly — day and night. While cities can no longer enact new noise ordinances under federal law, Long Beach has a long-standing exemption carved out by Congress.
When aircraft operators break the rules, measured at two monitoring stations near the airport, pilots or their employers must pay fees on a per infraction basis. While operators are hit with only a warning on their first transgression, fines can rise up to $300 after that.
JetBlue, the airport’s main commercial tenant, actually pays considerably more, a result of a legal agreement reached between the airline and the city about a decade ago.
The system works by measuring decibel levels. During the day, arriving aircraft must make no more than 101.5 decibels, as measured by a monitoring station near the runway, an airport official said. Departing aircraft can make up to 102.5 decibels. Between 6 and 7 a.m. and between 10 and 11 p.m., the decibel maximum drops to around 90.
In the overnight hours, the decibel limit drops to 79.
Noise violations rarely occur during the day — pilots in modern, efficient aircraft can meet those limits without difficulty — but at other times it is much tricker, aviation experts say.
Between 6 and 7 a.m. and 10 and 11 p.m. some pilots can maneuver aircraft to make them quieter, but in the overnight hours, the limit is nearly impossible to meet, experts say. That means operators have to decide whether to pay the fine or go elsewhere.
Three noise specialists work in the airport operations center tracking decibel levels. Eric Sheng, a noise specialist, monitors flights and take phone calls — sometimes angry ones — from residents. He said the difference between 90 decibels and 100 decibels is considerable and that neighbors tend to know when a violation has occurred.
“A 90 is like a blender in your house and a 100 is like a diesel truck going by your house,” Sheng said. “I think when it goes to 100 it makes a difference. You feel it.”
Most scheduled airlines and charter operators try to avoid rule-breaking. On a recent Wednesday for example, JetBlue’s final arrival was scheduled for 9:17 p.m., a short flight from Sacramento. But occasionally, often due to weather or mechanical difficulties, planes must land later.
According to airport data, JetBlue operated 22 times between 10 and 11 p.m. in June. In 13 of those instances, the carrier’s pilots violated the noise ordinance. Overall, in the first six months of the year, JetBlue had 50 violations. Between January and June, US Airways and UPS were the only other major carriers to have a violation. Each had one.
Overall in June, only about 0.1 percent of all operations (28 of 26,379) resulted in a noise violation, according to airport officials. That number includes private jets.
Under municipal law, the city can criminally prosecute the aircraft’s owner and the pilots for breaking the noise ordinance, City Prosecutor Douglas P. Haubert said.
“To my knowledge, criminal charges have been filed only three times in the history of the ordinance,” Haubert said in an email.
In 2003, Haubert said, the city and JetBlue reached an agreement that JetBlue would not be prosecuted criminally for noise ordinance violations. In return, the airline would pay more than other operators for each transgression.
In 2011, JetBlue paid $555,000 to the Long Beach Public Library foundation, according to a recent internal airline report. The agreement, called a consent decree, must be renewed every year, but Haubert said he expects it will continue for the foreseeable future.
Other Long Beach operators pay relatively little in fines, but that does not mean the noise rules do not affect operations, especially for private jet companies. Their clients often want to fly at night or in the early morning. But generally, the passengers must go elsewhere, like Los Angeles International Airport or Van Nuys Airport.
“We hold a policy that if you are going to land after 10 p.m. don’t land, go somewhere else,” said Damon Danneker, director of operations at Long Beach Airport-based charter operator JFI Jets. “It hurts business sometimes. Two nights ago one of our rich and famous people wanted to go to Florida but due to noise constraints we had to pass on the business.”
Danneker said most jets can land and take off between 10 and 11 p.m. and 6 and 7 a.m. without breaking the decibel limits, but he said pilots can be reluctant to try.
While the first noise infraction carries only a warning, future mistakes can cost operators and pilots.
“Nobody in aviation wants to break a rule ever,” Danneker said. “When you do break those rules, it’s kind of a badge of dishonor.”
Kerry Gerot, spokeswoman for Long Beach Airport, said first-time offenders usually take the transgression seriously.
“They get a warning letter and generally they do their best to comply,” she said. “It’s really a matter of education. It’s our job to help educate them especially if it’s a new pilot.”
Not every type of plane is covered by the noise limits, however. Gerot said government jets are exempt, and they can use the airport whenever they want.
Thomas Landefeld, who lives in Long Beach about two miles west of the airport, called military jets a major inconvenience. He said planes such as the F-18 are considerably louder than commercial jets.
“The regular carriers, we hear some, but it’s not that annoying,” Landefeld said. “The ones we have heard lately, especially on the weekends, are the military-type jets. If you’re talking, you can hardly hear the person you are talking to. It almost eliminates conversation.”
But Gerot said most residents, once they learn of military training flights, are generally OK with them.
“It’s a very small percentage that complains about them,” she said.
(Brian Sumers - Daily Breeze)