'We're fed up': More than 100 residents protest noise, pollution at Long Beach Airport

Protesters acknowledged that the city is limited on what it can do to curb general aviation activity but are determined to take their fight to the federal level.

'We're fed up': More than 100 residents protest noise, pollution at Long Beach Airport
Nora Carter, a first grader at Longfellow Elementary, protests small airplane noise and pollution with her mom, Julie, at Long Beach Airport Thursday, May 16, 2024. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Bixby Knolls is a relatively quiet neighborhood by Long Beach standards, but over the last few years the area’s residents have noted a rise in the incessant buzz from airport operations.

With more than 900 general aviation operations flying low overhead per day, Julie Carter, a resident there, said the noise is unbearable, with small aircraft circling her neighborhood from 6:30 a.m. until after 11 p.m.

“It’s really affected my life overall — I can’t work properly, it wakes me up at night, we’ve got the windows closed,” Carter said during the rally, adding that her daughter Nora, a first grader at Longfellow Elementary, has a hard time hearing her teacher during the school day.

Carter, and hundreds of other residents, have had enough.

Carter and about 120 residents gathered on the south side of Long Beach Airport Thursday to protest an increase in general aviation operations they say are bringing unbearable noise and air pollution to their neighborhoods.

The rally was organized by SANeR (Small Aircraft Noise Reduction Group), which has garnered more than 800 members on Facebook since it was founded almost one year ago in response to increased airport activities.

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“Every 30 seconds you’re in this cacophony of sound,” John Mosquera, one of the founders of SANeR, said during the rally, adding that the group also has grave concerns regarding the use of leaded aviation fuel. “We're fed up, we hit a boiling point.”

Mosquera said the group has met with city leaders, who said their hands are tied to unilaterally reduce the number of general aviation operations at the airport. In a memo dated Oct. 31, 2023, airport Director Cynthia Guidry bluntly stated the city has no authority to ban leaded fuel or curtail operations.

The reason the city is unable to act is because it is a federally obligated airport, meaning the city has accepted federal funds to buy land, develop or improve the facility, according to airport officials.

“It would be extremely difficult and unreasonable for the city to attempt to return long term federal dollars, nearly $350 million, to obtain local control of airport regulations,” Guidry said in the memo.

Mosquera said he understands the city’s predicament, noting that attempting to alter general aviation operations could void the airport’s noise ordinance, which limits commercial flight activity. With the city’s hands tied, the next step is to make it a federal issue.

“We want some real action done,” Mosquera said. “This may have to be an act of Congress to amend the laws that were passed that allow all this.”

A single-engine plane takes off from Long Beach Airport as more than 100 residents protest increased operations, noise and pollution from such aircraft Thursday, May 16, 2024. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Curt Castagna, president of the Long Beach Airport Association as well as president and CEO of the National Air Transportation Association and co-chair of the federal EAGLE (Eliminate Aviation Gasoline Lead Emissions) initiative, agreed that general aviation operations have been on the rise across the country, including Long Beach. He said the local flight schools have come together over the last 18 months to work with city staff to identify procedures they can implement to mitigate impacts on surrounding neighborhoods.

“I think, in some cases, there’s been a big success,” Castagna said Thursday. “We’re also seeing schools outside the area that are committed to that effort. So we’ll continue to do that to show progress as best we can.”

General aviation operations reached their highest level in at least eight years, according to airport data. From 2016 to 2022, the airport averaged about 26,200 general aviation operations per month. Last year, the airport averaged 30,800 operations per month.

While January of this year, the most recent month of data available, was below last year’s average at more than 28,400 operations, it was the busiest January in at least eight years. The next busiest January was in 2020, which saw 26,500 general aviation operations.

Carter also said she is concerned about lead emission and their impacts on her daughter’s health.

The use of lead gas in automobiles was banned in 1996 but leaded avgas remains the standard for general aviation. In September of last year, Signature Aviation, the Long Beach Airport’s leading fixed-base operator, ordered 992 gallons of a new unleaded fuel.

The unleaded fuel, however, is not being used, data shows. Since the initial delivery, no additional unleaded fuel has been ordered. In that same amount of time, meanwhile, nearly 169,000 gallons of leaded fuel has been delivered to Long Beach.

About 120 residents gathered on the south side of Long Beach Airport to protest increased general aviation flights Thursday, May 16, 2024. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

The city, for its part, has attempted to incentivize the use of the unleaded option. In January, the City Council approved $200,000 in subsidies for operators who use unleaded avgas to make up for the price difference. The council also approved a reimbursement program in November for operators who buy the required certificate to use the unleaded fuel.

The currently available unleaded fuel is compatible with about 70% of the small aircraft at the airfield, with the remainder requiring a higher octane. General Aviation Modifications Inc., or GAMI, has introduced a 100-octane unleaded fuel it lists as commercially available, with 1.2 million gallons of inventory ready to be shipped, Field Service Manager Tylor Hall said Thursday.

A 2014 ruling in a legal battle brought by the Center for Environmental Health stated unleaded fuel must be used in California when it becomes commercially available, Hall said. But the issue now is a dispute over what constitutes the fuel being commercial available, he said.

Hall claims that Castagna is challenging the legality of the GAMI fuel’s certifications it took 12 years to acquire, which in turn is making distributors and other companies “nervous.”

“He has that power,” Hall said of Castagna, adding that the company expects to expand its production capacity from about 2 million gallons per month to about 6 million gallons per month in late summer, despite the stall.

Castagna pushed back on the claim that he is trying to kill the GAMI fuel, saying that it is necessary to remove lead from fuel as quickly as possible. When it comes to the GAMI fuel, he said that while it is approved for use in aircraft engines by the Federal Aviation Administration, the industry is awaiting additional testing of the fuel in real-world scenarios.

“There’s nothing stopping any business from buying it,” Castagna said. “But each business within the supply chain has to decide their own risk protection measures.”

Brandon Richardson was laid off by the Long Beach Post on March 22. Thank him for continuing to cover Long Beach without pay.

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