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Hey Matt:

I've noticed that when the planes begin to take off from the airport at 6:30 a.m., the first plane is always a small propeller commuter plane, which is immediately followed by the big jets. Why is the small commuter plane always the first to go? Also, I've noticed a recent increase in the number of curfew-busting jets that take off around 5:00 a.m.

-- Donald, the net

Heymatt:

I was under the impression that there was a 6 a.m. curfew for planes landing and departing Lindbergh Airport. This morning, thanks to the cat, having arisen at 4:30 a.m., I was surprised to see a plane descending to land at 4:54 a.m. Was this a regularly scheduled airline landing?

-- G and S, the net

The elves can't figure what you're all doing up so early formulating questions for us. They're all excused from any serious thinking before 10:30 or 11. But I guess these are pretty good crack-of-dawn queries, so we'll see what we can find out. We'll cut and paste information we got from the FAA regional office in L.A. and from the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority and see if we can get you sleeping late again.

The first thing we need to know is that the 11:30p.m. to 6:30a.m. curfew at Lindbergh only applies to departures. There are no restrictions on landings. The FAA couldn't tell us exactly what flight it was that made G, S, and the cat curious, but it could have been a cargo plane, charter flight, almost anything. The runway door is always open at Lindbergh, 24/7. C'mon down!

Departures are a little more complicated. The FAA controls the Lindbergh tower, which gives clearances for take-offs. It's not their job to stop planes from leaving our little burg. If a pilot wants to go, the tower can't say no. At least not for any curfew reasons. It's the airport authority that sets the departure rules, but even they can't run out onto the field and stop a plane from departing. If the carrier or the pilot is willing to risk a fine for busting curfew, they can.

To quote the airport authority, "Departure curfew times are regulated by the amount of noise an aircraft makes. The noisier the airplane (as defined by the FAA), the more restrictive the hours of operation." The curfew isn't in place to stop air traffic, just to strike the right balance of being a neighbor-friendly environment and a major international airport. Most commercial, commuter, and cargo planes are so-called Stage 3 aircraft. Their particular noise levels are allowed between 6:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. Noisier Stage 2 craft are restricted to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

So if nobody's actually going to stop you from taking off, whatever the time of night, where does the curfew part come in? When a plane takes off during curfew hours, Lindbergh's automatic noise-monitoring system kicks in and records the level. A whole lot of letter-writing and paperwork follows, including notifications to the carrier/pilot of the offending plane (asking for an explanation of the situation), neighbors who are members of the Airport Noise Advisory Committee, and in bi-monthly public forums. If a fine is levied, it's $1000 for the first violation in a quarter, $3000 for the second in the quarter, $5000 for the third, and open-ended for four or more. At the last bi-monthly Curfew Violation Review Panel meeting, six operators were fined $1000 each for noise curfew violations. Seventeen carriers/pilots were fined in 2004.

Emergency medical flights and "flights of military necessity" can take off and land at any time. There's no restriction on them. And as for the little commuter planes being at the head of the departure line at 6:30, the FAA says departures are on a first-come, first-served basis. There can be up to 15 or 16 flights ready to go at that hour, so the feisty little short-hop commuters make every effort to be first to get tower clearance and get their planes at the head of the line. Now go back to sleep.

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