This story was published in collaboration with USC Annenberg Media.

Eric Gill said that at times, the air around Van Nuys airport is so thick with jet fumes that “you could cut it with a knife.” 

Gill, from Sun Valley, is just one of many residents opposing a new lease at Van Nuys Airport (VNY). They believe that changes to the airport could lead to an increase in emissions — which is why they attended an LA City Council special session to oppose helicopter company Helinet Aviation’s bid for a new lease at the airport to initiate “renovations” on their hangars.

Residents were affirmed when LA City Council’s Trade, Travel, and Tourism Committee (TTT) voted unanimously on February 8 to recommend the rejection of the Bonseph-Helinet proposal during a special session at Van Nuys City Hall, where Helinet executives hoped a long-term, up to 25-year lease could help initiate improvements on their leased hangars. Several city council members seemed to at least agree that more community input is needed before a new lease.

Before the unanimous vote, Councilmember Traci Park spoke to Helinet’s “invaluable service” to public safety and emergency medical transit for the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, emphasizing that their mission should not be interrupted.

“With that said, I remember during the height of the pandemic reading about the large increase in charter jets flying in and out of Van Nuys Airport, [creating] potent fumes that prevented parents from letting their kids play outside, poor air quality because of the increased particulate matter, as well as noise at all times of day,” Park said. “There wasn’t adequate community engagement around this [proposal].”

VNY is a non-commercial airport serving wealthy clientele — including Kylie Jenner, who flew a 17-minute flight out of VNY in 2022 — as well as chartered flights that sell individual tickets as high as $46,000. The airport also serves organizations like newsrooms and hospitals.

Employees from Helinet hold photographs of leaking ceilings at their workplace, claiming they need to be granted the lease to do necessary maintenance and upgrades, on February 8, 2024. (Shane Dimapanat / LA Public Press)

Helinet brought a fleet of executives and airport workers to the February 8 session, along with representatives from Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, which the company works with to provide medical services.

“For about nearly 25 years, Helinet has served as a sole provider, private helicopter air ambulance provider for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, at no cost to CHLA or to the families [and] the patients brought to the hospital for care,” said Dr. Calvin Lowe, medical director of the Alan Purwin Emergency Transport Program at CHLA. 

However, local residents at the meeting called on the TTT Committee — including Councilmembers Park, Tim McOsker, and Hugo Soto-Martinez — to reject the proposal, raising public health and environmental concerns.

“I feel like I can’t light a match outside in my yard because the fumes are so bad,” said Evelyn Gray, a resident from the Lake Balboa neighborhood.

Residents also noted that Helinet’s life-saving medical services can continue under their existing month-to-month lease.

“No medical flights are in jeopardy, nor are their luxury Fortune 500 charter flights,” said Timi Romolini, a legal researcher advising a group of Lake Balboa residents called Fume Fighters United VNY. The group also denounced the proposal, pointing to its lack of mitigation measures against environmental pollution.

Timi Romolini, legal researcher advising Fume Fighters VNY, waits in line for public comment during special session convened by the Trade, Travel, and Tourism Committee at Van Nuys City Hall on February 8, 2024. (Shane Dimapanat / LA Public Press)

Unlike LAX, VNY hasn’t adopted widely-used technologies like ground-powered units (GPUs) and pre-conditioned air (PCA) facilities to reduce air pollution. In 2013, the city built a jet blast deflector wall to protect workers near the 8,000-foot runway, which, unlike hangar space, is regulated by safety standards from the Federal Aviation Administration. 

“City Council has historically allowed Van Nuys Airport developments [by] lease holders without scrutiny over whether their proposal included significant [environmental] mitigation components, some of which LAX has had in place since 1993,” said Councilmember Imelda Padilla. 

Padilla introduced two motions — one to create a comprehensive airport plan to replace existing zoning code and another to appoint a citizen committee to advise the process. She also emphasized the imperative to conduct independent environmental reviews as part of the airport’s Vision Study

Residents’ top priority is for the airport to adopt technologies that would limit emissions from auxiliary power units (APUs), diesel units that are a chief cause of air pollution at airports. A 2021 review noted several studies that tied emissions to increased rates of premature death, preterm births, decreased lung function, and childhood leukemia. Data consistently shows elevated levels of ultrafine particulate matter, widely proven to cause respiratory illness, around airports. 

“In Van Nuys, we are in the 94th percentile for pollution out of all census tracts in California. We are the 75th percentile on diesel emissions. And we have above average rates of low birth weights,” said Jared Negrón, Lake Balboa Neighborhood Council member.

Smaller planes, which use leaded fuel, also operate at VNY and pose the additional threat of toxic lead exposure to residents. Last October, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined lead emissions from small aircrafts could endanger public health under the Clean Air Act, particularly causing irreversible health effects in children, a chief concern for the Van Nuys neighborhood, where 22% are minors, according to data by Niche.

“The expansion that has already occurred here over the last several years has put the health of this community in jeopardy,” Gill said.

Residents and Helinet employees gather for a special session convened by the Trade, Travel, and Tourism Committee at Van Nuys City Hall on February 8, 2024. (Shane Dimapanat / LA Public Press) Credit: Shane Dimapanat

Los Angeles World Airports, the city department that owns and operates LAX and VNY, maintains that no land expansion was proposed in the Bonseph-Helinet lease plan. However, residents allege the airport is expanding the amount of jets stored and taking off from the airport, in effect increasing APU emissions in Lake Balboa. 

Helinet employees claimed the company could not be blamed for alleged increases in APU emissions; it owns no jets, which are the primary aircrafts using APUs, and only one of its helicopters uses the technology.  

“By allowing the building upgrade of our facility, Helinet will be able to continue to provide the vital services for the community while providing a safe place for our employees,” said Alison Rakun, executive vice president at Helinet Aviation. 

However, Federal Aviation Administration regulations — which apply to airports like VNY that are accepting federal grants — state neither Los Angeles World Airports nor Helinet can decide the parameters for aviation use in their hangars. If more jets arrive at VNY, Helinet must accommodate them in their hangars. 

“There’s a wide range of aviation usage, including storage and parking of jets, that could be permitted under this lease,” said Mark Adams, Los Angeles World Airports governmental affairs representative. 

Following the committee’s recommendation to reject the Bonseph-Helinet proposal, LA City Council voted on Tuesday, February 20 to pass Motion 23-1339, Councilmember Padilla’s motion to appoint a citizen committee to advise further development at VNY — a step forward for residents hoping to incorporate environmental protections at the first point of airport business.

* Correction: This article was updated on February 29, 2024 for clarity and accuracy.