The world returning to a more normal pace of life resulted in a 70% increase over the previous year in the number of jet planes taking off in violation of the San Diego International Airport’s late night curfew restrictions, according to data analyzed by inewsource.

Last year, 89 planes departed the airport after the 11:30 p.m. curfew deadline, compared to only 52 the year before. The number of planes violating the curfew had been on a steady decline the last several years, dropping down to a low of 18 in 2020.  During the six years studied by inewsource, there were 337 violations recorded by the airport authority. 

Why this matters

San Diego is one of few cities with a curfew on airplanes taking off. But the rule, intended to limit overnight noise coming from the downtown airport, is often violated despite some airlines paying hefty fines.

San Diego is among a handful of cities around the country that has had a deadline for plane departures. The airport authority has a noise department that monitors all departures after 11:30 p.m. When one occurs, a panel determines whether there was a valid reason for the delay,  such as weather conditions or a medical emergency.  

The curfew, established in 1976, is an effort to minimize the noise of departing aircraft. Planes taking off are much louder than ones landing at the airport, said Sjohnna Knack,  program manager for airport noise mitigation for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. The first violation costs airlines $2,000, the second violation earns a $6,000 fine and the third carries a $10,000 fine. Airlines get a clean slate every six months, but any new fines are multiplied by the total number of violations during the previous six months. 

inewsource requested airport authority records on the number of violations, the reasons listed for the late departures and any fines paid by the airlines since 2017. Of the 337 violations reported by the authority, less than half paid fines. Nearly half the fines issued during those six years were for $2,000. 

But fines haven’t seemed to deter the airlines from departing after the curfew. 

Among the individual airlines, JetBlue and American airlines had the largest number of violations over the years, with 59 and 57 respectively, far ahead of the other airlines in the top 10. Twenty of those flights were in 2022. JetBlue has been fined more than $600,000 during the last six years. Combined, airlines were fined more than $1.3 million. 

San Diego airport
The San Diego County International Airport. (Courtesy of KPBS News)

inewsource attempted to reach officials at JetBlue and American airlines for comment on why so many of their flights violate the curfew each year, but neither company responded to repeated requests. 

The airlines that have been cited have all paid their fines in full, according to airport authority spokesperson Sabrina LoPiccolo-Kane.  That includes all fines against JetBlue and American, she said.  

Both LoPiccolo-Kane and Knack stressed that the authority’s role is not to police the airlines –  they can’t prevent them from leaving – but to monitor their behavior, communicate noncompliance and advise them on mitigation strategies. 

“Beyond penalties, there isn't a lot we can do,” LoPiccolo-Kane said. “That doesn't mean we're not doing anything. We are absolutely going to be working with the operators when they have that ability.” 

It was LoPiccolo-Kane who said the significant increase in the number of planes violating the curfew in 2022 was due to the increased number of planes servicing the airport post-pandemic.  The airport authority continues to communicate with violators to eliminate as many late departures as possible, she said. 

“So it is absolutely something that we are continuously working on with carriers. We've met recently twice with the operators on a kind of group level, and we intend to meet with the corporate folks of the ones that have repeat-offended in the last year,” LoPiccolo-Kane said. 

Noise complaints about aircraft are a serious issue for the airport authority, Knack said.  

“So it would be kind of easy to dismiss the concern about these violations as, you know, just sort of paperwork kinds of things or something that's not really that important. Are violations of this policy an important public policy discussion? Is this an important issue for the operation of the airport? Absolutely.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Mark J. Rochester is a former inewsource managing editor. Previously, he was editor in chief of Type Investigations, a national investigative newsroom headquartered in Manhattan. He has held senior management positions overseeing investigative journalism from New York to California, having been senior...