Tuesday, December 6, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Court rejects LA’s attempt to shift Burbank Airport flight paths

Flight patterns from LA’s smaller airport abruptly changed in 2017, sending jets over quiet hillside neighborhoods.

(CN) — The Ninth Circuit on Tuesday rejected a petition from the city of Los Angeles to force the Federal Aviation Administration to shift flight paths out of Hollywood Burbank Airport.

It was only the latest bout in an ongoing feud between the city and the transportation agency. 

For years, San Fernando Valley residents and the elected officials who represent them have complained that a shift in flight patterns in 2017 sent dozens of jets roaring over the hillside neighborhoods of Studio City and Sherman Oaks every day, creating noise and spurring fears of air pollution. Residents had hoped the court would intervene and force the FAA to reroute the jets according to the old pattern. But the court decided it lacked jurisdiction in the dispute.

Activists with the group Studio City For Quiet Skies expressed anger at the decision, saying in a statement, “The Court, in its customary deference to the FAA, denied the changes that were made to the 100,000 people whose lives were drastically altered 4 years ago when the FAA suddenly moved the flight path over them.”

Prior to 2017, flights departing from runway 15 at Burbank Airport flew south and then turned north, so that the southernmost point of their turn was around where the 101 freeway is. Then, in March 2017, the airport adopted a new navigations system, NextGen, under guidance from the FAA. According to the petition from the city of Los Angeles, there have been “hundreds of thousands of noise complaints from frustrated City residents” over the past two years. 

“For most of us, this was the first time that we had suffered from jet noise and the change was sudden and dramatic,” read a public comment submitted by Studio City For Quiet Skies earlier this year. “We reside in and adjacent to hills, mountains and canyons — areas with very low ambient noise — and now experience noise that is exacerbated by terrain effects, including reverberation and sustained sound effects.”

In an informational presentation in 2019, the FAA confirmed that flights had indeed shifted, flying lower and making a wider arc, so that the turning point was two to three miles further to the south. 

City Attorney Mike Feuer, in a letter to the FAA, said the agency’s admission was “precisely what elected officials and residents from affected communities have telling FAA for many months.” The city requested that the FAA direct air traffic controllers to route flights along the older, pre-2017 flight paths.

An FAA attorney responded to Feuer, in a letter, that although the flights had shifted “slightly south,” they had not done so at the direction of FAA air traffic controllers. “As you are aware,” wrote the lawyer, “aircraft on a particular route might be affected by several variables such as safety considerations, air traffic volume and complexity, weather, winds, pilot abilities, aircraft and equipment capabilities, etc.”

In a December 2019 press conference, shortly after the city filed a petition for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to review the FAA’s decision, Feuer said that explanation amounted to the FAA “abdicating its responsibility.”

The city alleged that the agency, “whether by action or inaction, allowed changes to departure flight tracks at the Hollywood-Burbank Airport without disclosing the changes to the City and public, without complying with agency procedures for issuing a final agency order, and without conducting the required environmental review of those changes.”

On Tuesday, the three-judge panel denied the city’s petition. Although the court of appeals does review orders issued by the FAA, the judges decided that the FAA’s letter to the city did not constitute an order.

“We cannot and do not decide whether the City could have raised its concerns about the current flight patterns around the Airport in a different manner that would have resulted in jurisdiction in this court or a district court to review those patterns," the judges added.

When asked to comment, an FAA spokesman said in an email: “The FAA does not comment on pending litigation.” When it was pointed out that there was, technically, no more pending litigation, the FAA spokesman wrote, “Please ask the city about any future plans concerning the litigation.”

A spokesman for the city attorney said in an email, “We are reviewing our options.” 

In July, the Ninth Circuit agreed with another one of LA’s petitions against the FAA, this one challenging flights from the city’s much larger and more famous airport, LAX. As a result, the FAA must undertake a new environmental analysis regarding flight changes at that airport. 

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...