FAA Caves In to City Demand To Close Santa Monica Airport

 - January 29, 2017, 8:14 PM
After the city of Santa Monica shortens SMO airport's runway to 3,500 feet, large business jets like those in the background will no longer be able to use the iconic airport. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

California's Santa Monica Airport (SMO), both historically important and a key part of the National Airspace System (NAS), will close at the end of 2028, the FAA said on Saturday following two weeks of negotiations between city leaders and the agency. Somewhat sooner, possibly within a year, the city of Santa Monica, which owns the 227-acre airfield, will cut the 4,973-foot runway down to 3,500 feet, effectively eliminating access to the larger jets that currently fly there. 

Before Saturday's surprise settlement, the city and FAA had been embroiled in multiple lawsuits, with the city council and its airport commission firmly arguing for closing the airport while the FAA and pro-airport proponents repeatedly pointed out that after World War II, the city had signed an instrument of transfer to keep the airport open in perpetuity. 

Despite that requirement and the FAA’s and airport proponents’ efforts to retain this important link in the NAS, the FAA and the city have signed a settlement agreement allowing the city to close the airport forever on Jan. 1, 2029. Probably in recognition of the city’s claim that a portion of the airport is not subject to the 1947 instrument of transfer with the government, the FAA also consented to allow the city to close nearly 1,500 feet of runway, a portion of which can be used to build runway safety areas and/or an emergency overrun with crushable concrete.

The consent agreement took airport users and organizations that have worked for years and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to try to protect the airport by complete surprise. It was, said Santa Monica Airport Association (SMAA) president Bill Worden, “a shock to us.” 

“The news that FAA has reached a settlement to close and restrict SMO with the current city council governing Santa Monica is obviously very disappointing,” added SMAA vice president Dave Hopkins. 

While the city had attempted to evict the airport’s two FBOs—Atlantic Aviation and American Flyers—and refused to sign new leases with airport businesses after allowing all airport leases to expire last July, the city, according to the FAA, “is obligated to enter into leases with private aeronautical service providers to ensure continuity of those services until the runway is shortened and it decides to provide such services on its own.” While the city has the right to take over FBO services, it cannot restrict the sale of leaded fuel for piston engines as long as the FAA permits such fuel to be used for aircraft in the U.S. The agreement also requires the city to give 30 days' notice before shortening of the runway and before closing the airport.

Precedent-setting Decision

Having long argued the importance of SMO to the NAS, the FAA gave no reason why it acceded to the city’s demands to allow it to close SMO. Airport proponents fought not just to keep SMO open but also to prevent its closing from setting a precedent for other local governments seeking to shutter their airports. According to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, “Mutual cooperation between the FAA and the city enabled us to reach this innovative solution, which resolves longstanding legal and regulatory disputes. This is a fair resolution for all concerned because it strikes an appropriate balance between the public's interest in making local decisions about land-use practices and its interests in safe and efficient aviation services.”

SMAA’s Fry doesn’t agree, and he told AIN, “At a time when the country is focused on rebuilding infrastructure, closing an airport that was supposed to remain a public-use airport ‘in perpetuity’ makes no sense. This action immediately increases the closure threat to an additional 230-plus airports across the U.S. that were deeded to towns and cities from the federal government after World War II to develop our freedom of movement by air.”

NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen isn’t happy with the FAA’s capitulation to the city of Santa Monica. “We are disappointed that the government decided to settle this case,” he said, “especially given that NBAA has long been committed to aggressively supporting business aviation access to SMO, through every legislative and legal channel available. If there are further avenues available to us, we intend to explore them.”

“We were surprised at the announcement of the settlement between the FAA and the city of Santa Monica regarding its airport,” said Jack Pelton, chairman and CEO of the Experimental Aircraft Association. “It is certainly a disappointing development, first concerning the immediate ability to shorten the runway, and the ultimate ability to close the airport in 2028. While we can only guess at the inside discussions to reach this settlement, as to our knowledge the airport’s stakeholders were not a part of it. The founding principles of FAA grant assurances are to maintain stability for an airport and its users as part of the National Airspace System, above local political maneuvering.”

NATA lamented the eventual loss of the airfield and the fact that airport businesses weren't consulted during negotiations between the FAA and city. “The agreement…is clearly a compromise that will have to be studied closely to fully understand its implications to both SMO and the entire national airport system. Certainly, it does not change the necessity of airports like SMO to the L.A. region. Ultimately, the city of Santa Monica is simply diverting a segment of its traffic to neighboring airports," said NATA president Martin Hiller. "It is disappointing that businesses both on and off the field that depend on SMO were not part of the negotiations."

However, he is "pleased that the FAA has stated the city is obligated to extend leases to current aeronautical service providers until such time as the city is ready to operate a proper aeronautical service operation…providing services consistent with industry standards and expectations and selling the kinds of fuel widely used in the industry and support use of the field—a point we note is covered in the weekend agreement." Hiller said that the reduction in runway length is a "game changer" and will certainly change the mix of traffic in and out of SMO, requiring a review by the city, other regional communities and private investors as to the "appropriate type of aeronautical service businesses to operate at the field.”

Questions remain about how the city will manage the airport, and especially how it will make up for the reduction in landing fee and fuel flow revenue from the larger aircraft that currently use the airport once the runway is shortened. Jet charter and fractional-share customers, for one example, might find SMO’s new 3,500-foot runway too short to meet regulatory requirements. It is not clear whether the settlement agreement addresses the city’s ability to raise landing fees and fuel fees to such a high level that all types of operators are discouraged from using the airport and possibly hastening its closure.

“The devil is in the details,” said AOPA president Mark Baker. “We are working to learn more about the fine points of the settlement, but our main goal—to keep this airport permanently open and available to all general aviation users—remains unchanged.”

Santa Monica city manager Rick Cole said that the city plans to implement the shortening of the runway to 3,500 feet immediately. “This will significantly reduce jet traffic flying over our neighborhoods and stops commercial charters until we close operations in 2028.”

Local attorney and airport proponent David Shaby, however, believes the entire process will take longer. “It is my understanding that that process will take approximately one year,” he said.

“This is a historic day for Santa Monica,” said mayor Ted Winterer. “After decades of work to secure the health and safety of our neighborhoods, we have regained local control of airport land. We now have certainty that the airport will close forever and future generations of Santa Monicans will have a great park.”


KSMO may be converted into a "great park" just as the Mayor said. But it won't be a park with grass and playing fields. It'll be a business and commercial park, with high rise office buildings and condos. What's more, commercial jets arriving from the north for landing at LAX will no longer pass overhead at 7,000 feet; they'll be much lower, because the 5,000 foot "bubble" that now protects small airplanes departing from KSMO will no longer be there. Nearby residents haven't heard the noise they'll hear when Boeings and Airbuses begin passing over their neighborhood. They will then learn the wisdom of the advice to "be careful what you wish for, because you may just get it."

Lon, you are absolutely right. Residents should pay close attention on dealings to convert the airport into a "park". Loss of revenue, loss of quality jobs (they maybe replaced with a couple of fast food jobs) are just a few examples.