Sharks Hockey Team on Thin Ice With San Jose Airport

The San Jose Sharks and the hockey team's charter air carrier are the worst violators of the overnight curfew at Mineta San Jose International Airport, arriving after-hours 10 times in the past season and a half, according to city officials.

San Jose has issued more than $20,000 in fines and sued the charter service in November 2004 to end the violations, but to no effect. Despite the lawsuit, the Sharks broke the curfew four more times since hockey resumed in October, landing as late as 3:14 a.m. on Dec. 4, airport records show.

The Sharks aren't the first late-night fliers to come into conflict with the city. San Jose fought and lost lawsuits against Oracle CEO Larry Ellison and the San Jose Sabercats football team over the curfew, but the city believes the Sharks have no legal basis for an exemption to the 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. flight restriction.

"You'd like to support the Sharks and you'd think the Sharks should support the neighborhoods," said Lenora Porcella, a downtown resident and airport anti-noise activist. "If the Sharks are blatantly violating the curfew and think it's OK as long as they pay the $2,500 fine, that's wrong."

Sharks president Greg Jamison admitted to breaking the curfew but said it was necessary "to keep a competitive balance in the (National Hockey League)" because there are nights when the Sharks are on the road and return for a home game the following day, while an opposing team is waiting and rested in San Jose.

"We would like to have the capability of coming and landing in San Jose and not having the extra hour or hour and a half when you come in late at night" and land in Oakland, where there is no curfew, Jamison said last week.

Problem is, the Sharks' desires conflict with the law, and the city says it can't look the other way to help the team try to win a few games.

"The curfew is uniformly applied against all users," City Attorney Rick Doyle said.

Almost from the day they arrived in San Jose, the Sharks have complained about the curfew. In 1994, the team persuaded the city council to petition the Federal Aviation Administration for a waiver allowing the Sharks and other arena users to break the curfew 40 times a year. But the FAA said such a policy would discriminate against other airport users who didn't get exceptions.

On most occasions when the team has to return home after 11:30 p.m., the Sharks' charter carrier, Sacramento-based Sky King, flies them to Oakland, where they board a bus for the remaining 35 miles to San Jose.

But the team sometimes ignores the curfew and lands in San Jose. It happened four times during the 2004 playoffs -- including a flight after the Sharks were eliminated from contention in Calgary. And four times since 2003 they've broken the curfew when the team had a regular-season home game a day after an away game. The earlier return hasn't helped much: In those four home games, the Sharks have one win, a tie and two losses.

Asked why the team broke the curfew after the Calgary elimination game, when competitiveness was no longer an issue, Jamison replied, "Because we did."

By contrast, officials at Orange County's John Wayne Airport -- which also has a curfew -- said neither the Mighty Ducks hockey team nor Angels baseball team fly in or out late at night. Both teams use Ontario's airport -- 32 miles from their stadiums -- for late-night arrivals. During the playoffs last October, the Angels flew into Ontario from New York at 3:45 a.m. rather than into John Wayne, a 10-minute trip from their stadium.

San Jose redesigned its curfew in October 2003, imposing fines for the first time while changing the standards for which planes were allowed to fly late at night and which ones weren't. The standard had been based on aircraft weight but now is based on noise.

The changes came in response to lawsuits filed by Ellison and the Sabercats, both of whom won challenges to the airport curfew for their jets. Sky King's Boeing 737s do not qualify for any exemptions because they are too loud.

Sky King's attorney declined to comment.

Many scheduled airline flights also break the curfew but are not considered to be violators because the city grants exemptions for flights delayed by weather, air traffic control or mechanical problems. The regular airlines also violate the curfew on occasion -- flying late without an exemption. Among those, American has the most violations -- about 10 since late 2003. But American has thousands of flights a year; Sky King has a couple dozen.

Doyle, the city attorney, said the revisions made the curfew legally defensible, and he will consider seeking a temporary restraining order prohibiting further violations by Sky King. A court order would strengthen the city's position because a violation could bring a contempt-of-court action and more serious penalties than the $2,500 fine the city can levy.

"This is the worst violator," Doyle said. "We have one cowboy operator out there in Sky King."

Doyle said he wasn't aware the Sharks had resumed violating the curfew this season until a Knight Ridder reporter made inquiries last week. He said the city did not seek a restraining order when it filed the suit in 2004 because the hockey season was canceled and the city could not demonstrate an immediate threat of harm to the public from future violations. The suit has yet to be heard by a judge.

Until last week, Sky King had paid fines for only the first two violations in 2003-04. Sharks officials said that on Friday afternoon Sky King delivered a check for $38,000 to City Hall to cover its unpaid bills, including those for its standard airport use charges, some of which are nearly two years old.

Jamison would not say if the Sharks are giving Sky King money to pay the fines.

In a general defense motion, Sky King argued that the city's curfew law was illegal.

Before filing the lawsuit, Doyle brought the matter to the city council in a closed session. The attorney said he could not recall whether he pointed out that Sky King's passengers were the high-profile hockey team. "I suspect I did but I can't specifically recall," Doyle said.

Council members Ken Yeager and Cindy Chavez, whose districts are most affected by airport noise, said they couldn't recall whether they were told the Sharks were involved.

"Overall, the city has made great advances with enforcing the curfew, except with this charter company and the Sharks," Yeager said. "It's a problem. That's why we're taking them to court." Yeager said he was working to set up a meeting with city officials and Sharks executives this week.

For Sharks players, the curfew can be one big headache.

"I'm used to it," said Sharks captain Patrick Marleau, an eight-year veteran. "But a lot of guys coming from the East, they could be home in their bed by 12:30 or 1 a.m. It adds up. Definitely, it'd be huge if we could land in San Jose."

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