Pilots and aviation workers are skeptical of the Airport Commission’s recent recommendation to effectively starve out pilots at the Santa Monica Airport.
Last month, the commission voted 4 to 1 to send a recommendation to City Council that City Hall stop selling aviation fuel and stop offering leases at the airport to anyone other than artists and those involved in light manufacturing after July of 2015 when a 1984 agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to expire.
The commission’s chair noted at the meeting that this would deter most pilots from choosing SMO.
The commission’s decision is not the final world but an advisory to the council members, who will likely consider the issue later this month.
A judge recently rejected a lawsuit filed by City Hall against the FAA to determine who controls the airport.
Residents have long complained about the airport’s impact on their quality of life and safety, saying it wasn’t built to handle the influx of jet traffic and has no runway safety areas to protect against bad landings or takeoffs. Residents living in the Los Angeles side of the airport say exhaust from propeller planes and jets is creating a health hazard.
Those in favor of keeping the airport, which they say can be an economic engine for Santa Monica and be a valuable asset following a natural or manmade disaster, want the anti-airport folks to give it a rest.
“If they lost the lawsuit, they sued and lost, then it’s going to be here,” said Kim Davidson, 63, who owns a large repair station at the airport. “The next step is working together to do this. The next step is making this the greenest airport we can. These people want to make the next step to snub everyone at the airport. There are plenty of people over here who are willing to sit down and talk. We can keep fighting but fighting isn’t going to do anything.”
In anticipation of the 1984 contract expiration, city officials have set most airport property leases to expire within the next year. For Davidson, who’s been repairing planes at the airport for 34 years, the lease situation is hard to think about. He acknowledged that he is concerned.
“So are my nine employees and their wives and kids,” he said. “I don’t know what to say. It’s not a good spot to be in. People say they can move down to San Diego. Well their wives have jobs here. That’s what greed does. It’s all about the big dollars and it makes you forget about the working people.”
Ken Mead, an attorney for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), said that the recent court decision doesn’t deal directly with the issue of starvation but that City Hall is still required to operate an airport.
“Now what does that mean?” he asked. “It means safe.”
While contracts might not officially require City Hall to provide aviation fuel or lease to aviation tenants, all the restrictions could be interpreted as an airport closure.
“There comes a point when that is a de facto shutdown that imperils the airport’s safe and efficient operations,” Mead said. “I think they should be very cautious about stepping into this area. I think they have already stepped into it to a degree and they ought to be revisiting their decisions.”
Mead said City Hall’s recently increased landing fees could be interpreted as an early attempt to starve out pilots.
City Hall doesn’t accept airport funds or passenger fees, the revocation of which are the normal penalty for contract violations with the FAA.
“At most airports in this country, when there’s an issue like this, the federal government says ‘all right, you’re just not going to get your money.’” he said. “In the case of the Santa Monica Airport, they don’t seem to want the money.”
Mead was careful to be clear that he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the FAA — which declined to comment for this story given the possibility for ongoing litigation — but he did say there are several ways to go about challenging any restrictive measures.
“I think there’s different legal avenues,” he said. “You could get a declaratory judgment, which is where a court just decides and there isn’t an injunction.”
Airport Commission Chair David Goddard suggested last month that with the expiration of the ‘84 agreement, City Hall would no longer be required to maintain a 5,000-foot runway. They opted not to recommend cutting down the runway, Goddard said, because it was the better political move. Reducing the length of the runway would prevent larger jets from using it.
Katie Pribyl, a spokesperson for AOPA, agreed.
“It’s a major safety concern,” she said. “I don’t think they want that on their hands. A longer runway is a safer runway and if one of their arguments is safety, whittling back the size of the runway is totally contrary to that.”
Robert Rowbotham, president of Friends of Santa Monica Airport or FOSMO, largely declined to comment noting that his mother taught him that if he didn’t have anything nice to say, he shouldn’t say anything at all.
He did offer one thought on behalf of FOSMO: “It just sounds like another desperate attempt by a desperate commission looking to do whatever it can to hurt aviation in Santa Monica.”