Aviation Wins Again in Santa Monica

The city of Santa Monica, CA, has spent the past few years trying to enact a ban of large (Class C and D) aircraft at the Santa Monica airport (KSMO.) In 2009 the FAA rejected the city's ban and enacted a restraining order that allowed those jets to continue to use the airport. The city tried to appeal the FAA's actions, but their appeal was recently rejected by the US District Court of Appeals for Washington DC.

Make no mistake: this is a win for aviation and a caution to cities that choose to allow development in areas that should be reserved as safety zones around airports.

Hannah Heineman, writing for the Santa Monica Mirror, noted that the court's ruling centered around the fact that the city accepted funds from the federal government's Airport Improvement Program. The agreement associated with taking these funds specifically forbids the city from discriminating against any type of air traffic unless safety is affected. The FAA ruled that the airport is safe enough, even with large jets operating there so the city is out of luck.

That agreement expires 20 years after the funds were used (either 2015 or 2023...there's a dispute about that apparently.) At that time, the city will be free to ban any type of air traffic they want.

The Washington Post's Daisy Nguyen started to give us a picture of the impact this ban would have caused when she wrote that seven percent of KSMO's traffic comes from class C and D jets. Even former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would have had to find another base for frequent hops in his Gulfstream IV.

That's just the start though. These jets might account for (a not insignificant) seven percent of flight activity at the airport, but that means they are a significant source of revenue for the local businesses and probably the state and city. These large jets are gas hogs - meaning lots of profit for the local FBOs and lots of tax dollars for government. These aircraft also require large and expensive hangars and expensive maintenance services. They also provide business for taxis, limos, food service companies and many others. The city of Santa Monica seems dead set on getting these aircraft out of their airport, but if they succeed they'll hurt tax revenues, local businesses and probably cause some job losses. I'm a little confused at how their government can look at these results as advantageous in our nation's current economic situation.

The FAA offered to help pay to install some collapsible concrete bricks at the ends of the runway to add some margin of safety. These bricks are credited with saving lives and minimizing damage in a regional jet crash in 2010.

Nick Taborek of the Santa Monica Daily Press feels that the city is likely to reject the FAA's funding for this project because it would lengthen the city's obligation to adhere to Federal regulations.

If the city is truly concerned about their citizens' safety, it should want this safety system installed. If they're absolutely determined to end their obligation to obey federal law and refuse to take money from the government to enable this, then perhaps the city of Santa Monica will pay for the expense out of pocket....

Taborek also complained about noise pollution from these jets. Along with concerns about the safety of houses built as little as 300 feet from the end of an active runway, the noise pollution argument is one that will probably be fought between pilots and cities forever.

People do not build airports in the middle of cities. They build airports on the outskirts of cities where plentiful safety zones can be established. Over time (usually decades), cities or counties get greedy and sacrifice the safety and comfort of their citizens by allowing homes to be constructed inside those safety zones. Government, builders and individuals have ample warning that an airport exists near the site of such development and have no reasonable excuse for any ignorance of the noise or safety concerns that will arise from their proximity to an airport. It is criminal negligence for a government to allow such development and poor decision making for an individual to build or purchase a home or office there.

It's too late for Santa Monica. They're stuck with a noisy and perhaps potentially unsafe airport in the middle of their city. They'll either keep taking federal money to help the airport remain a vital piece of their economy or they'll stop taking the money, the airport will deteriorate and other California airports will enjoy the profits that Santa Monica gives up.

Hopefully, this situation will continue to raise a warning flag for other cities and counties throughout the country. Hopefully these local governments will hear understand the message:

  1. Airports are critical to your economy.
  2. You want permanent, large open areas around these airports. These zones are critical for safety and to prevent noise pollution from impacting your citizens.
  3. You alone have the power to establish and protect these zones. If you choose to sacrifice your citizens' safety or comfort, then you alone will bear the blame.