Pressure Rises in Fight Over Flight

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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.

Planes departing from John Wayne Airport are crossing over south-county at lower altitudes under new flight guidelines generating protests.
Planes departing from John Wayne Airport are crossing over south-county at lower altitudes under new flight guidelines generating protests.

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.”


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  1. I wonder if anyone remembers the low flights of the F4’s landing at El Toro 🙂 That was noise! We even had a loss of one close to our house.

  2. Thank you for bringing this issue to light! Over 20 years ago, we bought our house which was in a quiet neighborhoo. It was not near an airport, nor under a commercial flight path. Yes,we could see & hear the military doing touch & goes on a monhly basis. That was ok, we knew the base was there. We continue to hear Pendleton bombing practice as well.
    This is a new commercial jet flight path right over our neighborhoods. To make matters worse, the FAA grants a “short cut” which was not a part of the FAA presentation. This short cut has the communication jets turn south right over after take off. These noisy jets go down the coastline at altitudes of 5-6000’past Laguna Beach gaining altitude to go over the boarder of Dana Point & Laguna Niguel at an approximate average altitude of 7,500-9800′. Then over densely populated neighborhoods of 400-875′ elevations, these jets continue to accelerate & ascend over our heads,creating even more noise! The FAA needs to stop granting this short cut unless it’s an emergency. It must be noted that SNA northeast flights cross land at an average altitude of over 16,000′. It is only fair that the southeast flights cross land at over 17,000′. The FAA could implement this requirement & stop the unrelenting noise that main cause of most of the complaints.
    Thanks for covering this important issue which has taken away our peaceful life style!

  3. I grew up in Old Top of the World from 1953 to 1976. I remember the low flying jets between us and Countrymans. When we had a very low cloud cover they would fly low over the saddle between the two hills. So low I vividly remember seeing the pilots head as they went by. So loud you could not talk.

  4. I live in the Turtle Rock area of Irvine. I have for sure noticed the uptick in noise and have complained to the airport and also to the Irvine City. To no avail, of course. Actually, during a conversation I was told that I am the ONLY one complaining and no one had told of any increase in noise and frequency. That drives me crazy!


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