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Tempers Soar Over Aircraft Noise

Longtime Laguna Beach resident Keri Barriga knows exactly when to expect the next audible onslaught. Beginning at 7:04 a.m., the aircraft begin to roar over her Canyon Acres Drive home every two minutes. “It’s been absolutely maddening,” said Barriga about the barrage as well as the Federal Aviation Authority’s denial of any difference in flight patterns.

Barriga has lived in her house on and off since 1975 and continuously since 2004, but it wasn’t until March 2011 that the sound of airplanes began regularly disrupting her formerly quiet mornings, she said.

At first she thought it a temporary disruption due to hot weather, which does cause planes to climb more slowly. When the droning persisted, Barriga contacted the Laguna Beach city manager. She called John Wayne Airport countless times, and she regularly questioned FAA officials, one of whom advised her she needed to round up others with similar complaints and make their own noise.

Even so, inquiries about why droning planes suddenly began piercing Barriga’s previously peaceful abode all yielded the same official response: “Nothing has changed.”

And yet, “there must be something going on that the FAA doesn’t know about, because we have numerous documented complaints,” said Council member Toni Iseman this week. The fact that about 30 residents took similar objections to City Hall beginning in April 2011 prompted Iseman to add their noise protests to last week’s council agenda.

The move was applauded by Barriga, who said it finally offered a measure of validation for her concerns.

Iseman and Council member Steve Dicterow, appointed to further investigate public concerns and apply pressure on the FAA, will host a public meeting on the topic in Council Chambers at 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 4.

Administrative analyst Liz Vazques-Avila and Asst. City Manager Christa Johnson investigated the noise complaints with officials from the FAA, the airport and Newport Beach. The answers they received largely mirror what Barriga heard: traffic volume has not markedly changed at John Wayne and departing airplanes have not been flying at lower altitudes.

The established protocol for pilots on eastbound routes are departures that first fly west over Newport Beach Back Bay to a point over the ocean where they make a U-turn and head back east. FAA data shows that on average about 130 flights take this path daily, and that about a third cross the shoreline over Laguna Beach. The authority to direct the flight path of the aircraft rests entirely with regional FAA air traffic controllers, rather than those in the local airport tower, as soon as departing planes fly three miles beyond the airport.

Laguna Beach resident Wolfram Blume, who flies a private plane from John Wayne, said commercial pilots have no discretion over their flight path and follow set standards for departures east or northeast. These “highways in the sky” are so complex and strictly regulated that the basic route or “ground track” does not vary, Blume said.

Air traffic controllers will “occasionally vector aircraft off standard procedures to keep them safely separated from other aircraft,” said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. He said it was possible, though not probable, that in this context a controller might direct a plane to fly over Laguna at a lower altitude, but he added that FAA radar data shows flight tracks over Laguna Beach in 2012 were nearly unchanged from 1999.

“The FAA has not changed any operating procedures for air traffic in this area,” Gregor maintained. “On an average day, virtually all commercial departures out of John Wayne Airport are at least 7,000 feet up when they pass over Laguna Beach.”

Extreme heat affects aircraft climb rates, causing them to fly lower over Laguna Beach on those occasions, but “that would have been the case a decade ago as well,” said Gregor.

Certainly climate conditions in Laguna Canyon routinely vary greatly from other parts of town and weather can affect acoustic patterns, which may explain in part why the majority of complaints have come from the Canyon Acres area. But that doesn’t explain why residents there suddenly began noticing airplane noise in the spring of 2011.

“Obviously something has changed,” said Eric Caris, another Canyon Acres resident who testified at the Council meeting.

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