By Cassandra Reinhart, Special to the Independent
About 400 South County residents packed Laguna Niguel City Hall on Monday, May 15, for a town hall forum on the changes of flight paths to and from John Wayne Airport.
The forum was hosted by Orange County Supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Todd Spitzer and John Wayne Airport, and also included local mayors, including Laguna Beach Mayor Toni Iseman. The target of their ire was absent.
“We have had a problem with this in Laguna Beach for 10 years,” Iseman interjected at the meeting. “I think we have an environmental approach to fighting this.”
Adverse environmental impact is exactly the basis of a lawsuit filed by the county, Laguna Beach and Newport Beach against the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) over its “NextGen” initiative, a result of National Airspace System modernization goals, and includes satellite navigation (vs. ground) and advanced digital communications. The FAA’s initiative encourages airlines to fly more efficient routes while burning less fuel, meaning more standard departures from JWA have been allowed to turn more sharply inland and lower to the ground. Residents from Laguna Beach and south Orange County say these lower altitude flight paths are increasing noise and pollution.
“There are people at the top of the hill that come very close to those planes, and they can actually say they can see people in the (airplane) windows,” Iseman said at the forum. “What they also see on their cars and on their fences and sidewalks is a fine particulate matter. Kerosene is what is in the air. You can see it on the car but you can’t see it in your lungs.”
The FAA has chosen to implement NextGen on a regional level, rather than an airport by airport procedure, in 21 geographic areas across the United States. Burbank, Los Angeles, Ontario, Long Beach, San Diego and Palm Springs are all part of this geographic region, called the SoCal Metroplex.
“The FAA had over 4,000 comments and regardless of those concerns they still implemented the plan,” Supervisor Lisa Bartlett told the audience. “Their recorded decision was based on no environmental impacts to this area.”
Many of those adverse comments have been made by Laguna Beach residents, some of whom make up the group Citizens for No Plane Noise. The group has written hundreds of letters complaining of the disruptions caused by the new flight paths, and is hoping a grassroots effort similar to the one that kept the El Toro airfield from becoming an international airport 15 years ago will work again. This time they aim to get the FAA to mandate planes keep a higher altitude around John Wayne at all times other than an air emergency.
JWA Deputy Airport Director Eric Freed stressed to residents that airspace is regulated by the FAA, including the altitude and location of all aircraft. Bartlett says pilots are requesting early turns from JWA air traffic controllers, who are autonomous from the airport.
“It starts with the air traffic controller. If we could get the FAA to mandate to air traffic control, do not allow an early turn unless it is for safety purposes,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett told residents their continued efforts to protest low-flying aircraft starts with tracking the flights that are disruptive, recording the corresponding data and turning it in to the FAA as a complaint. Representatives from John Wayne Airport also presented residents an overview of a new flight tracking system called VOLANS, which can help more accurately track flight data, even from smartphones.
“Aircraft tail number, airline, altitude, origin, destination, all of that information is important to report in so we can start tracking those specific flights that are going right over your homes,” Bartlett said.
The south county lawsuit against the FAA’s flight paths has had a venue change to Washington, D.C. Spitzer says there’s a reason for the move.
“What does that tell you about how much the FAA wants to argue in our backyard? They don’t,” Spitzer said. “They are not here for one reason, they don’t want to sit here and look at all of you.”
Iseman says without a change in flight paths the quality of life for Laguna residents, and all South County residents, is at stake.
“The FAA, I promise you, will say, ‘nothing has changed.’ And it makes you crazy because you know something has changed,” Iseman said. The solution is simple. “All they have to do is fly over the ocean.”