During the day, the sky above Nancy Palmtag’s Loma Portal home is pierced every few minutes by the loud roar of airplanes taking off from San Diego International Airport.
The sound of jet engines is supposed to fade away around bedtime. But as Palmtag and many of her neighbors know, airlines don’t always abide by an airport curfew that restricts them from departing between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.
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[box type=”shadow this-matters”]Enforcement of the takeoff curfew, which was established in 1989, is an important tool in controlling noise in neighborhoods near the airport.[/box][/one_half]
Since 2010, airlines have broken the curfew a total of 217 times, records from the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority show.
Palmtag said she’s always assumed that airlines paid fines for violating the curfew. But that’s often not the case.
An inewsource analysis of airport authority data found that curfew violations frequently go unpenalized. Of the 217 violations since 2010, only 54 percent resulted in fines. The airlines guilty of violating curfew the most — JetBlue Airways, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — paid fines for less than half of their violations.
“Look at those numbers! Half the time they break the curfew, nothing happens,” Palmtag said. “It’s just not fair.”
In most cases, records show, airlines were excused from penalties when their violations were the result of mechanical problems. While airport officials say they understand some residents’ frustrations that airlines aren’t being held accountable for breaking curfew, they say that the decision not to levy fines is often rooted in a concern for safety.
Airplane noise has lately been a hot topic in San Diego.
Residents who live in Point Loma and Ocean Beach have been fighting a proposal from the Federal Aviation Administration that would change the paths for departing flights as part of a nationwide plan to modernize air traffic control. They are worried that the new routes would increase noise and pollution in the community.
Whether or not those changes go into effect, the skies above those neighborhoods are always supposed to be quiet overnight.
In 1989, the airport authority established a regulation restricting overnight flights leaving Lindbergh Field. (There are no time restrictions for arriving flights.) According to the regulation, airlines that take off between 11:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. face fines of $2,000 to $10,000 — and sometimes more, depending on how frequently they have broken curfew within a particular time frame.
A panel of airport officials reviews curfew violations before deciding how much — if at all — to fine an airline. The Curfew Violation Review Panel takes a close look at the violations and often discusses why they happened with airline officials.
Since 2010, the review panel has fined airlines for 117 of the 217 curfew violations, collecting a total of $682,000 in penalties, which the airport authority deposits into a general fund.
That total dollar amount would be much higher if airlines were penalized for every violation.
JetBlue Airways has broken curfew more than any other airline. In the past five years, the airline has taken off after the 11:30 p.m. deadline 54 times.
JetBlue has paid some of the heftiest individual fines levied by the airport’s review panel, including a $30,000 penalty last year for a flight that was delayed because the plane was overweight and had to de-fuel, records show.
While it has paid some large fines, the airline has been penalized for just 46 percent of its violations since 2010, paying a total of $314,000 in fines.
In an email, Doug McGraw, JetBlue’s director of corporate communications, said flights out of San Diego sometimes break curfew because planes are late arriving to San Diego from the East Coast, where heavy air traffic and poor weather conditions cause delays. He said airplane maintenance issues also cause the airline to fly out of San Diego after the curfew.
McGraw noted that JetBlue’s violations have decreased in the past year.
“We have made adjustments to our schedule and fleet plans to better adhere to the curfew, and make every effort to respect that while ensuring our customers arrive safely to their destination,” McGraw wrote. “We respect the surrounding community and continue to work to comply with the curfew.”
JetBlue isn’t the only airline that has violated curfew without consequences, inewsource found.
Delta Airlines has broken curfew 31 times since 2010. But the airline, which did not respond to requests for comment, has been fined for just 10 of those violations. United Airlines has violated curfew 19 times, but only three of those violations resulted in fines.
In an email, United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart said that the “overwhelming majority” of the airline’s flights out of San Diego take off before the curfew hits. “On extremely rare occasions,” he wrote, “we may decide to operate a flight beyond curfew rather than cancel it and inconvenience our customers.”
Point Loma resident Karen Blazine, 75, said she was surprised when a reporter told her how many curfew violations result in no penalties for airlines.
“What entitles them not to pay a fine?” Blazine said. “I would like to know why.”
A safety issue
In most cases — more than seven in 10 of the unpenalized violations — the curfew review panel excused airlines from paying fines because the late flights were the result of mechanical issues, according to an inewsource review of airport authority records. Other times, penalties were scrapped because airlines were delayed by weather or air traffic control problems.
Kirk Hanson is a longtime Point Loma resident and a member of the Airport Noise Advisory Committee, an 11-member panel that makes recommendations to the airport authority board on noise-related issues. He understands that airlines that break curfew may not always deserve penalties. But he’s skeptical that airlines should avoid fines as often as they do — especially for maintenance issues.
“I don’t get why they should get a break if they don’t maintain their jet. To me that’s not a valid reason,” Hanson said, noting that the noise committee he sits on is not involved in discussions about penalizing airlines for violating curfew. “If you’re an operator of a big airline, you’re going to have mechanical problems, delays, but I don’t think that should get you off the hook for violating the curfew.”
Hanson said the fines are reasonable. And if airlines take off past 11:30 p.m. rather than incurring the costs of canceling a flight, he said they should pay the penalties for doing so.
“You’re affecting thousands and thousands of people when those flights go,” he said. “It wakes people up.”
Keith Wilschetz, the airport authority’s planning and noise mitigation director, said he understands the residents’ concerns, but the decision not to penalize an airline is often about safety.
“It’s very important to us that, first and foremost, safety is always maintained,” Wilschetz said. “If the airline feels that they have a mechanical issue that they have to take care of first before they depart, we don’t want them to have to worry about, ‘Am I going to have to pay a fine if I do this?’”
As for JetBlue, Wilschetz said the airline has the most violations largely because it operates a lot of late-night, “red-eye” flights that leave San Diego for Boston and New York shortly before the curfew. He said airport officials became concerned about the airline’s frequent curfew violations about a year and a half ago.
“Several of us, including our CEO, went to New York to their headquarters, and we spoke to their executives. And we explained to them why this is so important,” Wilschetz said. “We came away with their commitment that they are going to do all they can to try and help improve the situation, and they did.”
While JetBlue’s curfew violations have since gone down slightly in the past year, they are still a problem. In October, they were briefly discussed during a meeting of the Airport Noise Advisory Committee.
When airport officials mentioned the latest curfew violations, two JetBlue violations caught the eye of committee member David Swarens.
“There’s one carrier that has two fairly significant violations,” he said, referring to JetBlue violations in July and September. “Is there anything else going on here with that carrier that’s encouraging them to be a better citizen?”
For Point Loma residents, a better citizen might look like Southwest Airlines. The major airline, which operates the most flights out of San Diego, has not once broken curfew in the past five years.
Sjohnna Knack, program manager for airport noise mitigation, said that’s in part because Southwest doesn’t operate red-eye flights to the East Coast. It also has a bigger fleet, making it easier to swap planes if mechanical issues occur.
“But as a policy, Southwest has made a decision that they will not violate curfew,” Knack said. “So they have actually canceled flights.”
Would airport officials recommend that JetBlue and other airlines follow Southwest’s lead?
“How they go about avoiding breaking curfew is their decision,” Wilschetz said. “We just make sure they understand how important it is to us.”
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Airport Curfew Violations Since 2010
Download the data behind this database here.
inewsource reporter Leo Castaneda contributed to this story.