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Sunday, Mar 3, 2024


CHRISTOPHER WOODARD Staff Reporter Hoping to end a costly and protracted legal battle between Burbank Airport and its neighbors, the airport’s governing board recently agreed to study whether a mandatory nighttime curfew is warranted to protect neighbors from noise. By going forward with the so-called Part 161 study, which could cost more than $1 million and take a year to complete, airport commissioners had hoped the city of Burbank would drop its opposition to plans for a new terminal. That new facility has been designed to replace an overcrowded, outdated facility that the Federal Aviation Administration says is too close to the runways. But Burbank has no intention of signing off on the new terminal. By doing so, the city would lose what its attorney sees as an important bargaining chip that could be used to force the FAA to impose precedent-setting flight restrictions at the airport. “There’s no question the FAA is very interested in getting a new terminal built,” said Peter Kirsch, a Denver-based attorney who represents Burbank. “But we believe they can’t get a new terminal unless they approve noise restrictions. We’re not going to give up that leverage, that power. That would be not only foolish but irresponsible.” To that, Tim Pile, an FAA spokesman, said flatly, “No one’s going to leverage the FAA. If someone presents plans that meet (federal) criteria, we’ll give it due consideration. But we can’t go in and horse trade like (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu.” The standoff leaves Burbank Airport officials caught in the middle, wondering when, if ever, they’ll be able to build a new terminal. The plan to demolish the existing 14-gate terminal and replace it with a new 19-gate terminal farther away from the runways has been tied up in the courts since 1996, and Burbank has made it clear it is prepared to draw out its legal battle for a decade or even longer. “We’re at a loss,” said Thomas Greer, executive director of the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, the airport’s governing agency. “They say we’re not being reasonable, that we’re not willing to compromise. I don’t know what else to do.” Others say the airport authority is hardly an innocent victim. For years, they argue, airport officials ignored complaints about noise, and only when its new terminal got tied up in court did officials begin paying attention to their neighbors. Phil Berlin, an attorney who represents Burbank on the airport commission, said the airport authority agreed to conduct the noise study only after it came under pressure from the California Department of Transportation to limit noise around the terminal. Berlin said the authority further insulted the city when it proposed setting up the study and hiring the consultant on its own, suggesting that Burbank would only be allowed to give input at the end of the process. “If they’re offering an olive branch, they’ve taken all the leaves off it,” he said. Burbank city officials have since offered to pay $250,000 to help fund the study, but they want to be full partners in setting its parameters and hiring the consultants, an offer the airport authority appears willing to accept. Still, even if Burbank is allowed to be a full partner in the study, its officials have said the city retains the right to reject the study’s conclusions unless they lead to a mandatory curfew on flights between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Greer likens the city’s response to a groom who tells his betrothed that he reserves the right to back out of the wedding during the vows, despite the time and expense the bride and her family might invest in the wedding. “We feel a bit like the bride here,” he said. Under federal law, it is the FAA and not the airport authority that decides whether mandatory flight restrictions are in order. The Airport Noise and Capacity Act, approved by Congress in 1990, is designed to safeguard air commerce by protecting airlines from local restrictions. In return, the airlines are expected to phase out their noisier Stage II aircraft for quieter Stage III models. The law does provide exceptions for cities that are able to prove through a Part 161 study that the noise problem is so serious that restrictions are in order, but that has never happened since the law has been in place. Pile said that with several cities watching Burbank’s case, the FAA would be hesitant to break precedent unless the study proves flight restrictions are absolutely warranted. In Burbank’s case, the airlines adhere to a voluntary curfew for the most part, between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., and the commercial airlines already use the quieter Stage III aircraft. “There are three departures before 7 a.m. of air carriers and three nighttime arrivals. With everything else, there’s a curfew. I don’t understand what Burbank really thinks it’s going to get,” said Richard Simon, an attorney who represents the airport authority. Kirsch said a mandatory curfew should be imposed. “The airport says the late-night and early-morning flights are no big deal. Well, it’s a big deal to the residents,” he said. “If your sleep’s interrupted it doesn’t matter if it’s just once, twice or three times.” Additionally, the city of Burbank wants an assurance from the airport authority that once the new terminal is built, daytime noise would not worsen. Since the first lawsuit related to the proposed terminal expansion was filed in January 1996, the city has spent an estimated $6 million on legal and public relations fees in its fight. The airport authority, meanwhile, has spent $2.4 million on its legal fees alone. There are currently nine lawsuits pending in the courts over various aspects of the proposed expansion. Greer, hoping to find a way out of the costly stalemate, recently asked the airlines if they would agree to a mandatory curfew, eliminating the need to conduct the expensive, problematic noise study, but the airlines declined. The Air Transport Association, which represents the airport’s commercial carriers, said its members don’t want to restrict their ability to respond to changes in the market. The debate was further heightened last week when Federal Express Corp. announced plans to add one daily arrival and one departure between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. The authority’s legal affairs committee voted last week to reject the request, but that vote may be largely symbolic because the authority doesn’t have the power to countermand federal law. All this leaves Greer shaking his head. “The city has approved some 10 million square feet of office space. They have cinemas popping up all over the place. It’s a great city developing into a cosmopolitan community,” he said. “What I don’t understand is, why they don’t want a new terminal at the front door to the community?”

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