City Council Votes To Close Santa Monica Airport

 - August 24, 2016, 12:03 PM
The City of Santa Monica city council voted unanimously to approve a resolution calling for closure of the city’s airport (SMO) by July 1, 2018. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

As expected, the Santa Monica city council voted unanimously last night to approve a resolution calling for closure of the Santa Monica Airport (SMO) by July 1, 2018, and in the meantime replacing the airport’s two FBOs—Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers—with city-run services. The resolution also calls for the city to begin the process of planning a “great” park to replace the airport; investigating whether fractional-share operators are operating as scheduled airlines, which is prohibited at SMO; applying to the FAA to remove the so-called Western parcel, which would mean cutting 2,000 feet from the existing 4,973-foot runway; rigorously enforcing the noise ordinance; changing hangar leases to permits; eliminating the sale of leaded fuel; and enhancing airport security, on top of the airport’s current full-time police force. 

These moves appear to be designed to discourage operators, especially those flying jets, from using SMO. Jet operations have been growing in number in the past three years, while piston traffic has declined. From June 2013 to June 2016, piston operations dropped by about one-third, while jet operations climbed to 46 per day from 34. Overall operations are down, however, to 211 from 271 per day.

A recent FAA director’s determination requires the city to keep the airport open until at least Aug. 27, 2023. City council members believe that the city, as owner of the airport’s 227 acres, has the right to determine the future of the airport, despite the city’s signing an instrument of transfer agreement in 1948 in which the city agreed to keep the airport open in perpetuity. A trial is scheduled for August 29 next year to attempt to resolve the city’s dispute over whether that agreement still applies.

“This resolution is a great step forward,” said Santa Monica mayor pro-tem Ted Winterer. He also asked the city attorney to answer a question raised by one of the 30 people who made public comments at the meeting, as to whether he and mayor Tony Vazquez have a conflict of interest because they own property near the airport and will benefit if property values rise if the airport is closed. 

In a letter sent to the council on August 22, the Santa Monica Airport Association (SMAA) suggested that Vazquez and Winterer should recuse themselves from any decisions about closing the airport or restricting access to the airport because of this conflict. Responding to the question at the council meeting, the city attorney said that an exception applies in this case, because the number of residential property owners affected by the resolution is high enough to meet the applicable ethical rules; essentially, Vazquez and Winterer are affected the same as these residents and thus there is no conflict. According to the SMAA, however, the rules were changed last year, moving the threshold to 25 percent from 10 percent. An analysis of noise complaints shows that most come from an area directly below the departure path for Runway 21 takeoffs, but these numbers don’t support the required 25-percent threshold. 

“The primary purpose of the resolution that they have proposed and of the staff direction that they have given,” the SMAA wrote, “is to reduce or eliminate flights by jets. Jets fly almost directly over their properties. That is not true for the vast majority of property owners in Santa Monica. They cannot legally seek to influence the city’s policies concerning the airport, and we must respectfully ask that they recuse themselves.”

SMAA president Christian Fry said he believes the city council is using the resolution as a political tool during an election year, to show residents they are doing something about claimed noise, pollution and safety issues caused by the airport. “The benefits of the airport are so tangible,” he said. This includes the $275 million in annual economic benefit and 1,500 jobs generated by the airport, although not all of those jobs are aviation-related. The city’s residents and residents of Los Angeles, who border part of the airport, also benefit because the airspace over the airport acts as a protective bubble precluding development of high-rise properties. The resolution will have no impact on any legal disputes regarding the city’s control over the airport, he added. “It’s just an opportunity to look like they’re doing something.” The SMAA remains confident that at next year’s trial the district court will uphold the the 1948 transfer agreement requiring the airport to remain open in perpetuity. 

Atlantic Aviation doesn’t expect any changes attributable to the resolution. Asked about the planned city council vote on the resolution to eliminate the FBOs, an Atlantic spokeswoman told AIN: “This issue has been going on for years. There is no change since these discussions began. Atlantic still is, and will remain, the FBO in SMO.”