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Working-class Americans inhale private jet fumes


Commercial airlines have cut down on flights during the pandemic, but private jet flights have increased. This luxury for the nation's wealthiest comes at the environmental expense of people living near airports. Caleigh Wells of member station KCRW reports.


CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: The wealth gap is especially visible here in Van Nuys, a dense, working-class neighborhood, home to one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country. Among those protesting the increased flights here is sociology professor Karen Morgaine.

KAREN MORGAINE: You have the 1% using this airport in a working-class neighborhood, disproportionately affecting the environment right now in this neighborhood, in addition to increasing the impact on the climate.

WELLS: Although it's convenient for the wealthy, private jet travel is also one of the most carbon-intensive things a person can do, spewing about two metric tons of carbon every hour. The people living in Van Nuys are mostly renters, majority Latino, and households here typically make less than $60,000 per year. That's roughly the cost of a round-trip private flight from LA to New York. Suzanne Gutierrez-Hedges lives nearby, and she's worried about how those flights are affecting her kids' health.

SUZANNE GUTIERREZ-HEDGES: Just this morning, as we were walking outside to take my kids to school and getting in the car, I was like, cover your nose. Run to the car. Get in the car. Shut the door. We couldn't breathe because of the jet fumes. And it happens all the time.


WELLS: Gutierrez-Hedges recorded the jets flying over her daughter's school one day. She counted four of them in nine minutes.


WELLS: KCRW contacted 11 jet companies operating out of Van Nuys multiple times. Two declined to comment. The rest never responded. The Van Nuys Airport supports 10,000 jobs and says it contributes more than $2 billion to the area economy. Earlier this year, it improved the runway and let private companies build new hangars, so traffic has increased. But Samantha Bricker with Los Angeles World Airport says the air traffic itself isn't in the airport's hands.

SAMANTHA BRICKER: We can't regulate the number of flights coming into Van Nuys. We can't institute a cap. We have no ability to close down the airport at a certain hour. Those are just things that are not allowed under FAA regulations.

WELLS: The FAA said in a statement that they work with airports to address community concerns. They also said they'd review plane operation restrictions at Van Nuys if Los Angeles World Airports ever proposed any. The airport is offering cleaner jet fuel and requesting that planes not fly at night to curb noise and pollution, but those moves are only voluntary. So just how bad is the air in Van Nuys? Actually, we don't know. Bricker says the latest local study on the airport was done 17 years ago, and there's no plan to do another one.

BRICKER: Most of the pollution was coming from roadway vehicle emissions as the highest source of pollutants, and it was not the aircraft. And so, you know, there has not been a need for a new study because the feeling was that the findings for that study are still relevant.

WELLS: The airport makes that argument even though private jet travel has increased 15% since the pandemic, and cars have gotten cleaner. The EPA did study toxic lead levels five years ago. Van Nuys was the seventh-worst airport in the country, with more than twice as many people living nearby than any of the other most polluted airports. Only the federal government can regulate airplane emissions, and those don't go into effect until 2028. But resident Susanne Gutierrez-Hedges says she and her kids couldn't leave this polluted neighborhood even if they wanted to.

GUTIERREZ-HEDGES: And where would we move to? Like, we couldn't afford another house here in Los Angeles.

WELLS: Because like a lot of people in Southern California, the only home she can afford here is the one she already has. For NPR News, I'm Caleigh Wells in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caleigh Wells