FAA: SMO cannot ban large-airplane operations

 - July 7, 2008, 11:19 AM
The FAA has concluded that the city of Santa Monica, Calif., “is currently in violation of its federal obligations,” a determination made as an initial response to an FAR Part 16 investigation into the city’s adoption of an ordinance on March 25 banning Category C and D aircraft from operating at Santa Monica Airport (SMO). The ordinance is currently on hold, following issuance of a preliminary injunction on May 16 that precludes the city from enforcing the ban on Category C and D aircraft.

Category C and D aircraft have approach speeds greater than 121 knots and up to 166 knots at maximum certified landing weight. According to airport manager Bob Trimborn, an average of 13 Category C and D aircraft land and take off at Santa Monica Airport each day, accounting for 7 percent of total operations. Types of airplanes affected by the ordinance range from Hawker 400s to Challengers, Learjets, Falcons and Gulfstreams.

The airport wants to install 300-foot runway safety areas with engineered materials arresting system beds at each end of Santa Monica’s 4,973-foot Runway 3-21, but this would shorten the runway. Category C and D airplanes could still use Santa Monica, Trimborn said, but would have to do so at lower landing and takeoff weights to use the shorter runway. “We’ve done a pretty extensive analysis. It means they would have to depart lighter, but 95 percent of flights go less than 1,500 miles. We’re not talking about impacting very many aircraft here,” he said.

Because SMO has received federal funds, the FAA has long been involved in its efforts to restrict operation of larger airplanes. In its determination, the agency concluded, “Federal aviation law preempts local ordinances such as the city’s, designed to control flight operations and impede safe and efficient airspace management. The city’s ordinance is an unlawful attempt to manage the movement of aircraft and control use of the navigable airspace.”

Trimborn said the proposal seeks to address one issue: “that the airport wasn’t designed to accommodate faster Category C and D aircraft.” He added, [Opponents of the proposal are] saying it will reduce the utility of the airport. Does utility trump safety? No.”

Trimborn is well aware that there is no FAA regulatory framework for allowing individual airports to dictate operational restrictions such as the Category C and D ban that Santa Monica is trying to enact. And he believes that there ought to be such a framework. “You can’t do one size fits all. You have to be able to say that some airports do have operational restrictions, due to topography, the environment they’re in, the safety issues of [surrounding] homes.” The FAA’s determination, he said, doesn’t address the substance of Santa Monica’s concerns.

The FAA said that it “continues to believe that safety improvements can be made to the runway ends at SMO without interfering with reasonable access to the airport by aircraft operators. We find that key facts undercut the city’s argument that Category C and D aircraft should be banned from SMO on safety grounds.”

The FAA determination is an initial step; final agency action remains subject to judicial review, and Santa Monica can request a hearing. If the city doesn’t file an appeal to the FAA associate administrator for airports within 30 days of receiving the determination, the determination becomes final. The determination was dated May 27.