In a December 4 decision on a Part 16 complaint filed by pro-airport interests, the FAA has determined that the city of Santa Monica, Calif., is obligated by grant assurances until Aug. 27, 2023. Essentially, this means that the city must comply with statutory and regulatory obligations in its running of Santa Monica Airport (SMO) and keep the airport open until that date, according to visiting professor at UCLA and local pilot Lon Sobel.
“Those obligations have an impact on things like landing fees and lease lengths,” he explained. “And it’s likely that the city’s landing-fee hikes and short-term rentals violate those obligations. The Part 16 procedure that was used to get [the December 4] ruling is a procedure that can be used to attack landing fees, short-term rentals and other things the city has done, or may attempt to do in the future, to make the airport unworkable.”
The Part 16 complaint was filed July 2, 2014, by NBAA, AOPA, airport businesses, tenant and actor Harrison Ford, airport user Paramount Citrus and other parties seeking a clear decision on when the city’s grant obligations expire. The city claimed an expiration date of June 29, 2014, and since then has raised landing fees significantly, applied these fees to all based tenants and shortened tenant rental terms, while moving forward with attempts to close the airport partially or fully. The city had 30 days to appeal the FAA’s determination and had not done so by the time this issue went to press.
“Santa Monica Airport is a crucial part of Southern California’s transportation infrastructure and is responsible for 1,500 jobs and 175 businesses, and contributes $250 million to the economy,” said AOPA president Mark Baker. “Today’s ruling on what was clearly a frivolous claim is good news for Santa Monica’s economy and the long term future of the airport.”
NBAA COO Steve Brown said, “America’s airports are part of a federal transportation system, and this determination highlights the FAA’s recognition of the overall importance of grant commitments and demonstrates to other municipalities that recently have attempted to impose illegal restrictions, such as the town of East Hampton, N.Y., the significance of the commitment that airport owners and operators make when accepting federal funds.
“We hope that the city will end its short-sighted efforts to restrict operations at SMO, especially now that they have been declared impermissible,” Brown added. “These measures result in disputes and litigations that are a waste of public dollars.”
“This is a big step forward,” said SMO tenant Skip Short, executive producer of aerial filming company Aero Film. Short worries that the city of Santa Monica remains determined to close the airport and make it uncomfortable for tenants to stay there and that the city will begin filing lawsuits. “They are definitely going to try to make it as difficult as they can, but I think we have gained a lot of time with the FAA’s decision,” he told AIN.
The city has been arguing that it isn’t bound by a post-World War II agreement to keep the airport open in perpetuity and also that if this is binding, the agreement doesn’t apply to a portion of the airport property that includes 2,000 feet of the 4,973-foot runway. In any case, the December 4 determination forces the city to keep the airport open until Aug. 27, 2023. “I’m not sure how much of a victory this is if access isn’t guaranteed after 2023,” Sobel said.
Door Open To Challenge Airport Policies
However, the decision also could rein in some of the punitive measures that the city has taken in an effort to discourage operations at the airport, such as higher landing fees and application of those fees to based tenants, raising of lease rates and limiting of leases to month-to-month and a recent attempt to limit jet emissions at the airport. “The [grant assurance] regulations control the manner in which airports that are subject to those regulations determine the amount of landing fees, what they charge for fuel and things that airport owners do,” Sobel explained. “That’s why this decision is the foundation for airport users to demand that the airport do things or undo things that have happened. Airport owners subject to grant agreements and obligations can’t just decide to sell fuel for $20 per gallon to scare people away.”
The attempt to cap emissions at SMO is also not legal, according to Sobel. “Can the city enact emission control regulations to eliminate jets? The answer is: the city cannot use emissions controls to interfere with the operation of an airport. That’s solely the purview of the FAA. The legal issue is one of federal preemption, and the FAA preempts local efforts.”
Overall, Sobel sees the Part 16 determination as a victory, even though it is likely to lead to further legal battles. “The fact of the matter is that although 2023 is seven years away,” he said, “the seven years are going to go by very quickly.” Sobel also worries that California legislators could move to close the airport by seeking a law to do so in Congress. (A similar maneuver was used to close the airport in Rialto, Calif., last year.)
Rymann Winter, president of SMO flight school Proteus Air Services, is more positive about the Part 16 determination. “The decision by the FAA in favor of airport businesses is a big win for all of us in aviation,” he told AIN, “not just for those based at SMO. This airport is the canary in the coal mine for hundreds of airports in the U.S. that are facing similar pressure from people who bought cheap houses next to an airport and then have the temerity to complain about aircraft noise.”
Winter noted that in the Part 16 complaint, the city claimed that it switched to short-term leases because of the lack of surety about whether the airport would remain operating. “My hope, now that we have a decision by the FAA that the airport will remain in operation until at least 2023, is that the city will be compelled to offer long-term leases. It does make it a little easier to believe we will be here until at least 2023, but day to day we still face the issue of operating at an airport run by a city that is hell-bent on shutting it down.”