No Sleep for Those Under the ‘Jet Superhighway’

A Stealth Change in Flight Patterns to Hollywood Burbank Airport Has Impacted a Huge Stretch of L.A.

People living under Burbank airport flight paths put up with fuel soot and air and noise pollution, writes Studio City-based author Julia Bricklin. She wonders why leaders don’t do more about it. Image of plane flying over San Fernando Valley. Courtesy of eugene_o/Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

It starts around 6:45 a.m.—a faint, faraway boom, followed by a low growl that makes my stomach tighten and hands clench. Within seconds, the growl turns into a low rumbling, then a loud rumbling, then an intensely loud roar and whine, up to 70 decibels, as a 737 shoots over its low path across the Mulholland Corridor.

This goes on constantly for the next four hours as the planes of Southwest and other airlines fly west from Hollywood Burbank Airport and over Studio City, where I live, and the homes of 200,0000 of my fellow San Fernando Valley residents, from Toluca Lake to Encino.

In the late morning, the frequency of these flights slows down, though they are joined by scores of helicopter flights that follow the same path. About 5:00 p.m., the 737s pick up their pace again, along with low-flying UPS and FedEx jets.

This goes on until about 10 p.m., when the celebrity and business flights enter the narrow airspace in droves, jetting to and from Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, or even Anaheim or Santa Monica. Things die down after 11 p.m., when only the occasional American or JetBlue flight makes a connection, or when Jay-Z needs to head out to a meeting in New York.

For many Angelenos, the Burbank airport is a well-loved alternative to LAX. But 7 years ago, a sudden shift in flight patterns at Burbank airport allowed for more flights and forced more of them south of the 101 freeway. Those of us living under the changed flight paths now contend with a new level of daily noise, air pollution, and a huge amount of black plane soot in our yards, trees, and plants.

Several activist groups have labeled this jet superhighway a “sacrifice zone”—a place where others profit off residents’ health and safety degradations. An estimated 10,000 school children live and study under this jet superhighway, which also spans 75,000 acres of Santa Monica Mountains parkland that is home to a dwindling wildlife population and draws hikers and others from all over Southern California.

How did a part of Los Angeles that is both densely populated and contains legally protected green space become a dumping ground for jet fuel soot and dangerous levels of noise pollution?

In late 2016, the Federal Administration of Aviation (FAA) shifted flight paths south ostensibly to save money on fuel and modernize its flight procedures. Most communities deeply impacted by this shift did not know about the change until it was too late for residents to file petitions or protest. One day in the winter of that year, several jets in rapid succession flew so low over our home that we thought there was military action nearby. Seven years later, 100 to 200 flights per day go directly or nearly directly over my home.

How did a part of Los Angeles that is both densely populated and contains legally protected green space become a dumping ground for jet fuel soot and dangerous levels of noise pollution?

At the time of the change, this specific swatch of land was governed by some of the most vocal environmental champions in the Los Angeles—City Councilmembers Paul Krekorian and Paul Koretz.

They, as well as a deputy from then-Senator Kamala Harris’ office, attended meetings with the public about the new flight paths with and formal task force meetings with the public and the FAA from September 2019 to May 2020. Former Los Angeles City Attorney. Mike Feuer and current City Attorney Hydee Feldstein-Soto have filed lawsuits against the FAA over the shift in flight patterns and the proposed airport terminal expansion, respectively. But those legal actions have not stopped the FAA.

Congressman Adam B. Schiff has asked the FAAA for a review of noise around the airport, and Congressman Brad Sherman wants the project halted until the FAA can reduce the noise and environmental impacts on the community. But the FAA informed Sherman that the recommendations made by the task force didn’t meet federal safety criteria. The agency recently issued a draft Environmental Assessment on the proposed changes to the airport’s southern departures. The public can submit comments until January 24.

Meanwhile, the airport is growing, with more flights now than in 2016. The airport’s proposed expansion of its NextGen satellite system, an upgrade to one of its terminals, and a change in airport configuration will almost certainly bring even more flights and more noise to the Mulholland Corridor.  The airport will also be using federal funds designated for its terminal expansion in litigation involving the project.

Who benefits from a larger, busier airport, and this flight path? Southwest and other airlines, which boost the tax revenue for the city of Burbank. No single community should have to bear the brunt of the airport’s noise and environmental impact. The airport should fairly disperse the flights and revert to higher altitudes.

Los Angeles City and County leadership, the state’s Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority all have stakes in the impacts caused by the Burbank airport. They may be the only people able to bring the federal regulators to the table. Meanwhile, my neighbors and I, as well as the animals and plants of the Santa Monica Mountains, are suffering.


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