San Diego Airport is one of just six airports in the nation that enforces a curfew. Planes aren't supposed to take off between 11:30 at night and 6:30 in the morning.
NBC 7 Investigates found planes regularly break that curfew.
The airport authority gave NBC 7 Investigates data from their monitoring system. In all, 413 planes departed during the curfew window over a five-year period from 2016 to 2020.
The first violation costs airlines $2,000, the second violation earns a $6,000 fine and the third is met with a $10,000 fine. Airlines get a clean slate every six months, but any new fines are multiplied by the total number of violations during the previous six months. Out of 413 departures during the curfew, just 177 flights triggered fines.
That's partly because medical flights are exempt from the curfew, and in 2020 there were a lot of medical flights — 53 out of 71 total late-night departures.
But that still doesn’t account for why less than 43% of departures during the curfew window between 2016 and 2020 ever got penalized.
Sjohnna Knack with the San Diego Airport Authority said they investigate every single curfew violation to understand which planes departed late and why.
"We know down to a fraction of a second when they departed," Knack said. "If they’re not getting fined it’s because of safety reasons. Bottom line, we don’t want to have any aircraft depart unsafely out of this airport."
So if there’s bad weather preventing a takeoff in San Diego, or something wrong with the plane that needs to be fixed, those flights get a hall pass to break curfew.
Still, some people, like Ocean Beach resident Anthony Ciulla, say the curfew is working.
"I have noticed a positive change," Ciulla said.
Ciulla can list off the type of jet, the name of the airline, and sometimes even the destination, just by listening to the jet noise and glancing at the sky.
The self-proclaimed "aviation geek" said he actually likes hearing jet noise from his home under the flight path, but even he appreciates what happens to that noise every night at 11:30 p.m.
"Definitely there is a difference at night," Ciulla said. "At night, you can hear the ocean and the waves, and the tide coming in, it’s wonderful at night. An aircraft violates the curfew, you definitely can hear it. It’s definitely an interruption."
Mission Beach homeowner Gary Wonacott said the airport authority could be doing a lot more.
"The nighttime is probably the worst," Wonacott said. "You can be in a fairly deep sleep and one of the planes will come over and you’ll be awake. So you can be awakened two, three or four times between 10 and 11:30 at night. I don’t think that’s great."
For starters, he’d like fewer flights over Mission Beach after 10 p.m, not just after 11:30 p.m. And he doesn’t agree with allowing any curfew exemptions.
"I mean a curfew is a curfew," Wonacott said. "I think they’re too lenient on the airlines."
NBC 7 found as the airport has fined fewer flights over recent years the amount in fines collected has followed suit -- from more than half a million dollars ($558,000) in curfew fines in 2016, down to $16,000 in fines in 2020.
Instead of just penalties, Wonacott said the airport should offer financial incentives for airlines that use quieter jets and schedule earlier evening departures.
One thing both Wonacott and Ciulla agree on is the curfew needs to stay.
"The curfew itself is a great tool and something that should be protected," Ciulla said. "I hope it remains in place as long as possible."
Last year saw nearly 100 departures during that curfew window. Nearly half were medical flights and 22 out of 52 other curfew violations are still under review. Those fine numbers should be updated by next month.
The curfew only applies to departures. Planes can fly into San Diego Airport 24-hours a day.
The airport says all of the funds collected through curfew violation fines go into the Quieter Home Program.