inewsource is always looking for new ways to bring deeply researched investigative and data-driven stories to San Diego County residents. That’s why we are exploring podcasts as a way to share longform audio storytelling. This builds on our current radio reporting for our media partner, KPBS.
We are piloting this podcast with a story we first reported in November 2015. Reporter Chris Young found that airlines were routinely violating a curfew intended to keep departing planes grounded from 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. However, out of the more than 200 violations since 2010 only about half had resulted in a fine.
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In the podcast, Young discussed the story with reporter Leo Castaneda.
LEO CASTANEDA: Hi everyone, and welcome to our first ever inewsource online exclusive radio story. I’m here with my colleague Chris Young …
CHRIS YOUNG: Hey there, Leo.
CASTANEDA: And Chris we’re here because of a story you did looking at airport curfew violations.
YOUNG: That’s right, this story specifically takes a look at the 11:30 p.m. curfew for takeoffs at San Diego International Airport. Airlines are supposed to face fines for breaking the curfew.
But what we found is that the airport authority often doesn’t penalize airlines when their planes take off late when people are sleeping.
NANCY PALMTAG: Half the time they break the curfew, nothing happens.
YOUNG: That’s Nancy Palmtag, she’s lived in Loma Portal since 1975. So this curfew is important to her.
I talked with Nancy on a recent afternoon. Her home sits right under the flight path.
As we sat down in her living room, I showed her data we analyzed from the airport authority. The data showed all of the curfew violations going back five years.
Specifically, it showed that airlines have broken curfew more than 200 times since 2010. But almost half of those violations have gone unpunished. Again, here’s Nancy:
NANCY PALMTAG: It’s just not fair. It wasn’t put in to be played with like this.
CASTANEDA: I get it, the curfew is there for a reason.
NANCY PALMTAG: And that was to give the residents some amount of confidence that once the curfew time actually started, ohhh, we could breathe a sigh of relief. And just then, another plane comes.
(sound of airplane flying by)
YOUNG: Just like now?
NANCY PALMTAG: Just like now.
YOUNG: You can imagine how frustrating those planes can be during the day. Now picture that happening at midnight or 1 am, when you’re trying to sleep.
I wanted to get a better idea of what it’s like living under the flight path. So I went out near Point Loma. I found a good spot at NTC Park, in Liberty Station.
It’s a small park just across a sliver of the bay near the airport, and there are lots of homes located nearby. I recorded a plane taking off at around 11 o’clock. Here’s what it sounded like.
(sound of airplane takeoff)
CASTANEDA: Woah. That’s really loud.
YOUNG: Exactly. I talked with another Point Loma resident — Kirk Hanson — who is all-too familiar with the sound of jet engines overhead.
KIRK HANSON: You’re affecting thousands and thousands of people on the ground when those flights go. I mean, 11:30 is already late, but like 11:40, midnight, one o’clock. It wakes people up.
CASTANEDA: When those late night flights take off past curfew, airlines are supposed to pay a price. You mentioned that the data shows that’s often not how things turn out. But when they do get fined, how much are the penalties?
YOUNG: The curfew regulation, which the airport authority established in 1989, says airlines that take off late typically face fines of $2,000 to $10,000 — and sometimes more.
The fines go up if there are multiple violations within a given time period.
Take last October. JetBlue paid a $30,000 penalty for a flight that was delayed because the plane was overweight and had to de-fuel. And they’ve paid some other big fines, too, including one that was $40,000.
In fact, speaking of JetBlue …
JETBLUE ANNOUNCER: If you’re just joining us, welcome to JetBlue Airways service to Boston …
YOUNG: JetBlue has broken San Diego’s curfew more than any other airline. Since 2010, it’s taken off late a total of 54 times.
The airline has paid more than $300,000 in penalties for those violations. But more than half of JetBlue’s violations have not resulted in fines.
CASTANEDA: It sounds like they’re getting let off the hook quite a bit. Let’s say I’m a resident under this departing flight path and I’m upset about these after-hours takeoffs. Where can I go?
YOUNG: Well, you could start by attending one of the Airport Noise Advisory Committee’s quarterly meetings.
JENNIFER LILLEY: Good afternoon. Can everyone hear me in the back? …
CASTANEDA: Oooo a public meeting! Buckle in, it’s gonna be a bumpy ride!
YOUNG: Fair enough, it’s not the most exciting of places. But the committee makes recommendations to the airport authority on noise-related issues. That includes curfew violations. I went to the committee’s October meeting, which attracted an unusually large crowd.
JENNIFER LILLEY: Typically we have about six people that come to this meeting, not the wonderful audience that we have here today.
YOUNG: Most, if not all of the people there were actually attending because of a Federal Aviation Administration proposal to move the flight path for departing flights. It’s part of a nationwide plan to modernize air traffic control.
Point Loma and Ocean Beach residents have really been fighting the proposal. They argue that the changes are going to increase noise and pollution in the community.
But whether or not the changes go into effect, the skies above those neighborhoods are always supposed to be quiet overnight. And that’s because of the curfew.
CASTANEDA: You could say that airport noise complaints have really been … taking off lately?
YOUNG: Just play the tape, Leo.
JENNIFER LILLEY: The first item I’d like to talk about is our curfew violation review statistics in the past quarter.
YOUNG: If you ducked out of the meeting for a bathroom break, you would have missed the very brief presentation on the most recent curfew violations. The overview lasted just a couple of minutes.
But one committee member — his name is David Swarens — zeroed in on a couple of JetBlue’s late flights that were posted on a big screen at the meeting.
DAVID SWARENS: There’s one carrier that has two fairly significant violations. … Is there anything else going on here with that carrier that’s encouraging them to be a better citizen?
YOUNG: Swarens’ questions was answered by Sjohnna Knack. She’s the airport’s program manager for noise mitigation. She explained why JetBlue breaks curfew so frequently.
SJOHNNA KNACK: These are red-eye departures going to New York and Boston, and they’re leaving late. Often times they are late arriving. Sometimes they have mechanical issues. But this particular company, ya know, they work really hard not to violate.
CASTANEDA: Did JetBlue give you any reason for their violations?
YOUNG: The airline declined an interview request. But in an email, JetBlue said it’s adjusted its flight schedule to better adhere to the curfew. And it noted that its violations have decreased in the past year.
CASTANEDA: But even for a big national airline 300-grand in 5 years has got to sting. That’s a lot of checked baggage fees. Hasn’t anyone sat down with their executives and said, you know, “C’mon guys, get it together …”
YOUNG: I don’t know how exactly they worded it, but yeah, the airline’s violations were becoming such a problem that local airport officials, including the CEO, flew to New York to confront JetBlue executives.
Keith Wilschetz is the airport authority’s planning and noise mitigation director. He was at that meeting with JetBlue and he told me how it went.
KEITH WILSCHETZ: We explained to them why this is so important. And they explained to us what some of their issues and concerns are. And it was very helpful for us to understand one another. We came away with their commitment that they are gonna do all they can to try and help improve the situation, and they did.
CASTANEDA: Does Wilschetz understand why some residents are upset that airlines aren’t being punished for these violations?
YOUNG: He said he does.
He told me that a panel of airport officials carefully reviews each violation before deciding how much to fine an airline — if at all. And he said the decision not to penalize an airline is often about safety.
KEITH WILSCHETZ: We don’t want them to make a decision to leave even though there’s a mechanical problem because they don’t want to have to pay the fine.
YOUNG: Airport Authority records show that airlines are most often excused from paying fines when their late flights are caused by mechanical problems.
Remember Kirk Hanson, the Point Loma resident? He’s also a member of the Airport Noise Advisory Committee. He doesn’t understand how airlines can avoid fines because of maintenance issues.
KIRK HANSON: 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.
CASTANEDA: Now, JetBlue isn’t the only airline around. Who else keeps breaking the curfew?
YOUNG: Delta has the second most violations. They’ve broken curfew 31 times since 2010. It’s been fined for only 10 of those violations.
Then it’s United Airlines with 19 violations. But of those violations, only three resulted in fines.
CASTANEDA: Let me flip that on you then. Who are the good citizens? Does the data tell you who is doing a good job of not breaking curfew?
YOUNG: I was actually a bit surprised by this. Southwest Airlines is the biggest carrier in San Diego, but it hasn’t had any curfew violations since 2010.
Airport officials told me there were a few reasons for that: For one thing, 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.
CASTANEDA: Obviously having more available planes and fewer flights cutting close to that curfew help. But still, no violations? Didn’t they slip up at least once?
YOUNG: Airport officials told me that Southwest takes the curfew really seriously. Once again, here’s airport official Sjohhna Knack.
SJOHNNA KNACK: As a policy, Southwest has made a decision that they will not violate curfew. So they have actually canceled flights.
CASTANEDA: That’s interesting. One last thing, Chris. This curfew is for outgoing flights between 11:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. But what about incoming flights? Isn’t there a curfew for when planes can land?
YOUNG: I actually got that question a lot when I was working on that story, and no. Airplanes can land at any time of night. They don’t face any fines for landing late.
CASTANEDA: Well Chris, great story as always. Thank you all for listening, you can go to inewsource.org for more information about this, including a searchable database, right?
YOUNG: That’s right, readers can see all the violations over the past five years. The data shows if they resulted in a fine. And if not, why they weren’t penalized.
CASTANEDA: For inewsource I’m Leo Castaneda
YOUNG: And I’m Chris Young.
We'll let you know when big things happen.